The Supreme Court is expected to decide this month whether to uphold three district court decisions that ruled illegal the Commerce Department’s wish to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this ruling. Siding with the Trump administration would ignore the plain language of the law, make the decennial Census less accurate, deny some parts of the country adequate federal resources and deprive millions of Americans of fair representation.
There is another crucial point about adding the citizenship question that has been almost completely ignored: It would do substantial damage to American businesses nationwide that rely on accurate Census data to make critical decisions.
The Census, by law, is supposed to count every resident of the United States and provide a detailed look at households so that it can serve as the foundation for key indexes that measure the economy and demographics. Businesses draw on the economic and demographic data made possible by Census to plan for the future in the same way the government relies on Census information to help calculate indicators such as gross domestic product and unemployment.
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For example, retailers rely on accurate Census-based data to determine where to open stores, how big they should be and what products to sell. Utilities use the survey to decide where to build infrastructure. The entertainment and communications industry relies on data derived from the Census to assess what programming to show, which audiences are participating, and how to target sponsorship and advertising resources.
All told, businesses use Census-based data to make decisions that determine the flow of almost $4 trillion in annual private investment. Imagine the consequences to the economy if businesses were to base those decisions on incomplete or distorted information.
We already have citizenship information
In order to safeguard our privacy, U.S. law prohibits the government from adding questions to the decennial Census if the information can be gathered from other sources. The government already collects information about citizenship in the American Community Survey, a more detailed questionnaire that makes accurate estimates based on smaller samples.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration is trying to add a question to the 2020 Census that would make it less accurate. A study by Harvard researchers shows that the citizenship question would result in an undercount of 6 million Hispanic people alone, as immigrants and newly naturalized Americans could be reluctant to take part in a survey they believe could be used against them.
The Census Bureau estimates the citizenship question would cause at least a 5.8% decline in response rates among noncitizen households. The bureau’s lead scientist has warned that the question would increase the cost of the 2020 Census and erode its accuracy.
Inaccurate Census would hurt US economy
One of my constituents, Maurine Haver, president of Haver Analytics, told me she is concerned the citizenship question will reduce the accuracy of government statistics. Her company provides time-series data to hundreds of companies.
She is not the only one who is worried.
More than a dozen companies — including Uber, Lyft, Univision, Ben & Jerry’s and Levi Strauss — formally notified the Supreme Court of their concern in an amicus brief, where parties who are not directly involved in a case can offer expert insight on the matter. Market research firm Nielsen filed a separate amicus brief, saying the question “will have a lasting and negative impact” on America’s largest consumer product manufacturers, retailers and media companies. Many other companies have quietly opposed adding a citizenship question but fear taking a public stance on a highly politicized issue.
If the Census is deliberately made less accurate, we will live with the results for at least a decade. That error will hurt us all and will undermine the American businesses that count on the Census for accurate data. For our economy’s sake, I hope the Supreme Court will ensure we get the Census right.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., is vice chair of the Joint Economic Committee, a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee and co-chair of the House Census Caucus. Follow her on Twitter: @RepMaloney