Previously in Linguistic Anthropology for Fall 2017, my fellow students and I learned about the US Census and had David Kraiker, a Data Dissemination and GIS Specialist from the Census, talk to the class about what the organization does. As 2020 is fast-approaching, so does the new census to be given out to people residing in the United States. Every decade since it’s inception, the U.S. Census Bureau formulates a new questionnaire for people to answer. The purpose is to collect accurate demographic information and data that can be beneficial for policy making and record keeping. Data collected is publicly available and informs everything from the building of new schools to managing hospitals. As noted in recent news reports and blogs, they have also been used electorally to gerrymander districts. The important and daunting task of data collecting has a wide-reaching impact; what kinds of concerns are raised then when changes are made to the questions asked? A widely reported and controversial change is the addition of a question pertaining to participants’ citizenship status. The addition of the citizenship question for 2020 is now very likely as the Supreme Court is poised to allow the question into the survey.
Though the question was included in the 1950s, critics as well as officials from the Census Bureau worry that this will deter people from participating in the Census, fearing that their citizenship or immigration status will be shared with other federal agencies such as ICE. This is problematic not only from a human rights perspective, but also affects the mission and purpose of the Census itself that is vital for policy making. Recently Another change, though one viewed in a more positive light, concerns information on same-sex couples as reported by the Pew Research Center. While this is a more inclusive change in the questionnaire, this stands in stark contrast to the citizenship question and its potential repercussions. So, what to make of the new census then and the changes planned?
Changes reflect not only the social attitudes of the times but that of those who head the agency as well. According to the reports and public policy analyses summarized above, the addition of the same-sex question shows the changing landscape of the public in regarding the LGBTQ+ community and mirrors recent demographic change with more same-sex partners than there were 10 years before. The inclusion of the citizenship query though is viewed as aligning with policies of the current Federal government, and not necessarily with how Americans view immigrants and people who enter the country illegally as reported by research and polls conducted. It is then disconcerting that this query can lead to a serious decline in participation, potentially rendering significant sectors of the population under counted and invisible.