What could a citizenship question mean for the 2020 Census?

What could a citizenship question mean for the 2020 Census? What could a citizenship question mean for the 2020 Census?

June 24, 20193 min read
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By the end of June, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the proposed addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census form.



Rebecca Tippett, the director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is available as an expert source on the topic, and for any other Census stories that need expert commentary from a demographer.


If you’d like to speak with Tippett,

call 919-445-8555 or email mediarelations@unc.edu.


Tippett is a noted expert on Census reapportionment and redistricting. She can discuss how Census data is used, who gets counted, what the citizenship question is, and why it matters. She can also discuss implications for redistricting, considerations around using untested new technologies in obtaining Census data, and other anticipated challenges for the 2020 Census due to broad declines in survey participation and rising costs.


Quote from Tippett: “When we talk about the importance of the Census, we often talk about power and money. We use the Census counts to distribute political power and allocate funding for everything from highway spending to programs like Medicare and Head Start. But the Census is more than just that. It is the backbone of virtually every data product that researchers, governments and businesses use to understand who we are, how we’ve changed, and what this might mean for the future. It’s also the most democratic and inclusive activity we do as a country. This once-a-decade count is the only source of basic demographic data on all individuals living in the United States.”


Q&A with Tippett


Question: Why might non-response in 2020 be higher than 2010?

Answer: Non-response in 2020 may be even higher for many reasons. The U.S. population is larger and harder to count than ever before. Overall response rates to statistical surveys have been declining steadily for the past few decades and Americans are increasingly distrustful of government data collection efforts. The Census Bureau is also piloting many new initiatives to reduce costs, such as:

  • using the internet to increase self-response;
  • using administrative records (data that already exists in the government) to reduce the need for non-response follow-up efforts;
  • using satellite and aerial imagery to identify where to count; and
  • using automation to reduce staffing and office needs.

These technical and cost-saving changes also introduce new risks of non-response and undercount. In February 2019, for example, the Office of Inspector General reported that in-office address canvassing—the use of satellite and aerial imagery to identify where to count—did not fully identify where to count during the April 1, 2018, End-to-End Census test in Providence, R.I.. The Census Bureau’s plans to rely heavily on the internet may create special challenges for rural residents, and these potential implications have not been fully tested. The Bureau’s planned End-to-End test in rural areas was canceled due to budget constraints.


Q: Why does the citizenship question matter?

A: Change to the Census that threatens to impact Census response rates should be concerning. When households do not complete their census form, the Bureau sends individual enumerators door-to-door to try to obtain the required information. In 2010, non-response follow-up efforts cost the US $1.6 billion.


Q: Who is likely to be undercounted in the Census?

A: Historically, certain population groups, referred to as “hard-to-count” populations or communities, have not been fully counted and represented in the Census count. Several challenges can make a population hard-to-count and can contribute to an inaccurate Census, such as:


  • Concerns of confidentiality
  • Distrust of government
  • Misunderstanding of who should be counted in the Census
  • Lack of stability in living arrangements
  • Language barriers
  • Lack of internet access when the Census is relying on self-response on the internet as the primary form of data collection for the 2020 Census.


North Carolina’s hard-to-count communities include:

  • Young children under age 5 (highest rate of undercount in 2010 Census)
  • Hispanic or Latinx individuals
  • Native American individuals
  • Black or African American individuals
  • Frequent movers / Renters


If you’d like to speak with Tippett,

call 919-445-8555 or email mediarelations@unc.edu.




Connect with:
  • Rebecca Tippett, Ph.D.
    Rebecca Tippett, Ph.D. Director, Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center

    Areas of expertise include population estimates & forecasts, postsecondary education, Census reapportionment & NC demographic trends.

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