On Monday evening, Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell laid into President Donald Trump's administration for fighting to interrogate people about citizenship status in the 2020 Census. This is more than a bad policy, said Rampell — this is an attack on the very ability for the U.S. government to use numbers.
"During the Obama administration, Trump repeatedly claimed that official numbers released by our independent federal statistical agencies — such as the unemployment rate — were fake," wrote Rampel. "Legions of career civil servants were all cooking the books to make Democrats look better, he claimed ... And since Trump has taken office, he has worked to justify such distrust by actively degrading the quality of data — specifically, by seeking to make the 2020 Census less accurate."
The U.S. government has not included citizenship on the standard census forms for over half a century, and for good reason: millions of respondents who fear answering won't be counted at all. Even before this change, noted Rampel, respondents in field testing "told census workers that they fear how their data might be used against them or their loved ones."
"In the near term, the consequences could be severe," said Rampel. "Hundreds of billions of dollars are allocated annually based on the decennial census. Congressional seats are apportioned, and districts are redrawn. Perhaps not coincidentally, blue states are likely to be the biggest losers in both dollar terms and political representation if, as expected, this new survey question results in significant undercounts of immigrant and Latino populations."
Worse, said Rampel, "The decennial census data is also the baseline against which virtually all other surveys are calibrated. Which means that whatever its motives, the administration’s innumeracy is likely to skew all sorts of other critical information that government agencies use to evaluate economic trends and health epidemics; that businesses rely on to decide how much to invest and hire and where; and that workers and families use to determine where to live, what to study, how much to spend on a home."
Multiple former Census Bureau directors strenuously oppose the change, but Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross moved forward anyway, leading to a legal battle that will shortly go before the Supreme Court.
"One basis of a democracy — not to mention a healthy economy — is good official statistics so that the people and their representatives can make informed decisions," concluded Rampel. "By throwing the numbers into doubt, the administration jeopardizes our democratic and economic health, not only today, but for many years to come."