The Trump administration appears to be rejecting two changes in Census questions proposed during the Obama administration.
One was to declare the Hispanic category a race. Censuses from 1970 to 2010 asked one question on race and another on Hispanic status; this change would make Hispanic one of the suggested responses to the race question. The change was advocated by some liberal groups dismayed that so many people who characterized themselves as Hispanic also characterized themselves as white (or some other race).
That, of course, was no surprise to those familiar with Latin American societies, which tend to have different racial categories and many citizens of mostly or even purely European descent. (Check out a photo of Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto if you doubt that.)
The other change advanced under the Obama administration was a new race category, Middle Eastern and North African. That category would generate numbers that undoubtedly would be the basis of discrimination claims and racial quotas and set-asides for people claiming that race. Whether Lebanese-Americans, Israeli-Americans and Algerian-Americans are subject to pervasive discrimination is dubious.
The Office of Management and Budget reviews and must approve changes in government questionnaires, and it appears, according to this NPR story, that the Trump administration has let deadlines go by without approving these two changes. The final deadline for Census questions is the beginning of April, two years before Census day, April 1, 2020. In my view, the two changes would tend to further Balkanize the country into putatively aggrieved segments and we are better off without them.
We may be better off, too, with a new question that the Trump Justice Department has asked the Census Bureau to ask: citizenship status. A question about citizenship hasn’t been asked on the decennial Census since 1950, but the Census does ask about it in its American Community Survey, which samples about 3.5 million households a year. Liberal groups have opposed a citizenship question, arguing that it would deter compliance by non-citizens, particularly illegals and result in increased Census undercounts and reverse the Census’s progress in reducing undercounts in this century.
The liberals have an obvious political angle here: undercounts in states with high numbers of immigrants would reduce the number of House seats they are awarded by the reapportionment that will automatically follow the 2020 Census. But so do conservatives. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Edward Blum points out in the Wall Street Journal that a lawsuit he supported to require states to use citizen populations to draw their congressional and state legislative district line foundered in the Supreme Court in part because the ACS doesn’t provide precise enough data on numbers of citizens in small population units; a Census that asked for citizen status would. But would that data be reliable?
On this issue, I think the stronger argument is for no change, if only because a citizenship question might draw large numbers of dishonest responses; the liberals’ concern about undercounts also has some weight in my view. Concerns about the Census Bureau divulging individual respondents’ answers, however, are probably ill-founded, considering the Bureau’s long and proud tradition of protecting confidentiality.