American Sociological Association

Census Case Judges Cite ASA In Disallowing Citizenship Question

In 2018, the ASA joined other organizations in filing an amicus brief against the late inclusion of a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census.  Both the New York Southern District Court and a concurring Justice on the Supreme Court noted ASA’s opposition to the inclusion of the question in their rulings, which disallowed the addition of the citizenship question and permitted the census preparation process to begin.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last month forbidding the addition of a citizenship question to the upcoming 2020 census presented an array of opinions, both dissenting and concurring, from individual Justices.  Justice Stephen Breyer, before his appointment to the Court a well-known specialist in administrative law, wrote an opinion that differed in some key areas from the majority opinion with which he largely concurred.

One of Justice Breyer’s main arguments was that “the evidence indicated that asking the question would produce citizenship data that is less accurate, not more,” a key point of the amicus brief filed by ASA, the American Statistical Association, the Population Association of America, and the American Library Association last November.  He went on to note that “…Former directors of the Census Bureau wrote that adding the citizenship question so late in the process ‘would put the accuracy of the enumeration and success of the census in all communities at grave risk.’ The American Sociological Association and Census Scientific Advisory Committee echoed these warnings.” Justice Breyer then stated that these arguments did not seem to impact the Census Bureau’s submissions in respect to the question’s likely impact on response rates.

Justice Jesse Furman of New York, one of two Federal judges to rule against the question before it reached the Supreme Court, cited an early 2018 ASA letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross urging him not to add a citizenship question. Furman noted that the ASA letter indicated that if a citizenship question were added, “the integrity of the 2020 Census data will be fundamentally compromised…. Including a citizenship question is likely to keep some people from responding to the questionnaire and others from responding truthfully, thereby undermining the accuracy of the data. In addition . . . , [w]ith little time left before the 2020 launch, a new question could not be subject to standard rigorous testing, which would further undermine the quality of the data.”

ASA was also included in Judge Furman’s explication of the conclusion of “experts in the field” that the question was not well tested for purposes of the decennial census questionnaire.

We are pleased that the fight over this question has come to a close and the integrity of the census will be preserved.  Nevertheless, the prolonged and public nature of the dispute may well influence response rates, and we will continue to support advocacy efforts aimed at ensuring full participation. 


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