Census Oversight Hearing Overlooks President Trump’s Request for Citizenship Data
Just weeks ahead of 2020 Census invitations hitting mailboxes across the country, U.S. Census Bureau director Dr. John Dillingham sat before the House Oversight and Reform committee on Wednesday, February 12th to answer questions on the government’s largest peacetime undertaking.
The hearing raised many concerns about the Census Bureau’s preparedness to conduct an accurate Census count. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), hiring for the 2020 Census is behind schedule. States including Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wisconsin, upstate New York, central and western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, western North Carolina and southeastern Massachusetts are especially low on applications. The GAO has concluded that “Without timely and appropriate actions, the challenges … could adversely affect the cost, accuracy, schedule and security of the enumeration.”
However, what happens after peak census operations was minimally addressed by Congress. Including processes that may whitewash representation and potentially leave many communities of color without the resources they deserve.
President Trump’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question on the 2020 Census form has dominated census stories, but what has gotten considerably less attention from Congress is the Census Bureau’s obligation to comply with the president’s executive order to collect citizenship data from administrative sources including agencies like Department of Homeland Security and state DMV’s.
Also, left untouched by Congress is the Census Bureau’s new method of keeping responses confidential, known as “differential privacy.” Although the Census Bureau’s efforts to protect confidentiality is commendable, many researchers and data scientists have raised grave concerns about the differential privacy algorithm and its impact on persons of color.
Here is what we need to know:
- How many states have complied with the Census Bureau’s request to share citizenship data? After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year to keep a citizenship question off the 2020 Census, President Trump issued an executive order requiring the Census Bureau and other executive agencies to work to create citizenship data based on existing records. Complying with the executive order, the Census Bureau has sent notices to Secretary of State’s offices across the country asking to release drivers license data that includes citizenship information to the Bureau. According to president Trump a citizenship database would allow states to redraw voting districts to only include citizens over 18 rather than all residents in the area. This is a method that Republican national redistricting director, Thomas Hofeller said would be politically beneficial for Republicans and non-Hispanic White people. To date, the Census Bureau has only confirmed that Nebraska has complied with the Bureau’s request.
- How will the Census Bureau ensure that citizenship data collected from administrative records is current and accurate? Common Cause and advocates across the country have raised alarm bells on Trump’s executive order to collect citizenship data, not only because of how the administration wants states to use the data to redraw voting districts, but the sheer inaccuracy of the data.
In 2010, the bureau failed to accurately match the persons, addresses and person-address pairs in its data to other agency’s administrative data. The match rate ratios got worse the more specific they tried to be.
Even considering the bureau’s best data – address matches, nearly 30 million addresses in administrative records were not found in the 2010 census, and almost 10 million addresses in the 2010 census were not in administrative records. From the report: “For instance, there were Post Office Box addresses in administrative data but none in the 2010 Census. The 2010 Census also contained physical descriptions for addresses such as ‘yellow house near fork in the road’ that cannot be matched to administrative records.”
Before state governments attempt to carve up our communities based on inaccurate citizenship data, we need answers.
- Does the Census Bureau’s method of keeping responses confidential, known as differential privacy overrepresent white people, therefore hurting communities of color? According to researchers, the Census Bureau’s new method of keeping census responses confidential known as “differential privacy,” may whitewash communities of color. Differential privacy, is used to determine the amount of randomness also called “noise” or synthetic data that needs to be added to a data set. This is done to assure that individuals cannot be reidentified by data savvy people, after the bureau releases its data to the public. While differential privacy should be reassuring to communities because it guarantees larger confidentiality, many data scientists are raising concerns that there are serious problems with the Census Bureau’s algorithm, especially when looking at the accuracy of communities of color. They say, under differential privacy, some racial groups suddenly have no representation in certain towns where they should be represented.
A lack of representation in census data products means that minority communities do not get their fair share of representation and resources that matter for community funding projects like how many fire trucks, road repair projects, and playgrounds each community receives. When members of a community are erased, everyone in that community loses out.
In our democracy, we believe everyone should have a voice. These questions are critical to the success of the 2020 Census, and what it means for community resources. Communities across the country are at risk of losing representation and their fair share of resources if the Census Bureau does not work with stakeholders in ensuring not just an accurate count, but accurate data.