The U.S. Census Bureau rolled out a test this week to see how a citizenship question could affect the headcount next year, even as it awaits a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on whether or not the question should appear on the 2020 census form.
The bureau has begun mailing out test forms to 480,000 random American households, according to a press release. Half the recipients will see a citizenship question; half will not. The test is designed to help the bureau adjust its plan for next year, like the number of census takers it needs to send out to households that don’t self-respond.
Craig Chico, president of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, is worried about the test.
“It’s certainly going to scare people,” he said. “Even if people do become aware that this is only a test, it just further exacerbates the lack of trust in the federal government.”
Back of the Yards is one of many areas in Chicago that are considered hard-to-count communities. Experts say that these neighborhoods, some of which contain large populations of immigrants, are at risk for an undercount in the 2020 census, especially if the Trump administration prevails in its fight to include a citizenship question.
Chico is also concerned about the timing of the census test.
“Why couldn’t we have waited until the Supreme Court ruled?” he said. “I’m not part of the Census Bureau, and I’m sure there’s a reason for it. But I just don’t like the way it’s going to make people feel. I think it’s gonna undercount us again.”
He said he doesn’t know how he would advise residents to respond to the sample census.
“I’m just not going to blindly say, ‘Yeah go ahead, fill it out, it’s only a test,’” Chico said. “If you’re worried about your life, your citizenship, your family, if it’s a one-in-a-billion chance that something could happen, you won’t take it — nor should you.”
Typically, the Census Bureau conducts tests well in advance, says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and former staff director of the U.S. House of Representatives’ oversight subcommittee for the census. The most comprehensive test was conducted in 2015, but a late request from Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to add the citizenship question forced the bureau to add this final dry run.
“In spite of the fact that this large a test would never, under ordinary circumstances, be done so close to the start of the census, I think that the Census Bureau believed it had no choice,” Lowenthal said.
She added that this particular test will reveal “very limited findings” for the Census Bureau. “It will really only highlight a possible drop in self-response rates,” Lowenthal said, referring to the number of households that complete the census themselves, online, over the phone, or via paper form. Those households that don’t self-respond are visited in person by enumerators or are counted using other methods.
Lowenthal said that the Census Bureau’s test will likely create confusion for many families.
“Whichever way the [U.S. Supreme] Court rules, half of the households in the test will get a census form that will not be used during the real census in 2020,” she said.