Fight over citizenship question on 2020 Census isn’t over. What it means for Florida

What you need to know about the 2020 Census

The next U.S. census is on April 1, 2020. This year's census is particularly controversial because of one question: 'Are you a U.S. citizen?'
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The next U.S. census is on April 1, 2020. This year's census is particularly controversial because of one question: 'Are you a U.S. citizen?'

Depending on whom you ask, a question on citizenship in the 2020 Census may cost Florida millions of dollars in federal funding for housing and healthcare, and maybe even hurt the chances of adding a congressional seat. Or it may be much ado about nothing, because undercounting has always been an expected issue with the Census.

In a surprising 5-4 ruling against the Trump administration, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday put the citizenship question on hold, ruling that the Commerce Department’s explanation behind adding the question to the Census was “incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency’s priorities and decision making process.”

But government officials still have weeks to refine their intent behind asking about citizenship if they hope to include it in next year’s Census, as the decision left the door open for the dispute to be settled in a lower court.

In Florida, a state with one of the highest populations of non-citizens in the country at just over 9 percent, some experts think that even a slight number of households opting out of filling out the Census could have drastic effects on statewide funding.

The Census data guides the government’s allocation of state funding for dozens of federal programs, including Medicaid and Pell Grants. It dictates how much money will go toward school breakfasts, highway planning, youth employment programs and Section 8 housing programs.

During the once-a-decade survey, Census experts anticipate minor undercounting or overcounting of certain populations — immigrants and children under the age of 5 are some of the most likely to be left out. Undercounting an infant population could mean less money destined for Head Start.

If 10 percent of the state’s 1.9 million non-citizens skipped next year’s Census due to the citizenship question, “Are you a citizen of the United States?”, it would result in an undercount of about 190,000 residents.

“Having an undercount like that is an enormous challenge to accurate planning, to planning for social services, for transportation,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the Mapping Service at the City University of New York Graduate Center. “It’s very disconcerting.”

Romalewski, who oversees the Hard to Count data map at CUNY, argues that any percentage of a population undercount would be concerning. But to really understand the impact on people, he said, you need to look at the “very local level.”

In Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, for example, an area with an estimated 3,234 residents has several characteristics that make it prone to undercounting in 2020, according to the Mapping Service’s data.

Over 40 percent of households in the neighborhood did not answer the census in 2010 and more than 50 percent did not have internet access, Romalewski said. Almost half are foreign-born and 8 percent of the area’s population is under the age of five.

“If these kids are undercounted in 2020, it won’t mean that the kids will disappear,” he said. “But it could mean the local school district doesn’t plan for enough elementary grade classes, and then in September 2021 all of a sudden the kids who weren’t counted show up to enroll in school, and the classes are overcrowded.”

During the 2010 census, census takers overcounted Florida’s population by an estimated 0.45 percent, according to the Census Bureau. Robert Santos, chief methodologist at the Urban Institute, explained that an overcount is equally troubling and could mean that communities that respond to the census at higher rates — whites and people over the age of 50 — could have received more federal resources than those who do not.

“One can imagine places and cities with neighborhoods that have high concentrations of African Americans and Latinos,” Santos said. “Those communities won’t get the funding or the representation that they deserve.”

Adding the citizenship question, Santos said, would mean reducing the chance that underrepresented communities will increase participation.

“There is a real threat of meaningful undercounts in a way that will affect people’s lives,” he said.

According to the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy, the Census was the basis for allocating $44 billion in federal funding to Florida during 2016. That comes out to about $2,100 per Florida resident that year. Most of that money goes to low-income residents via programs like Medicaid and food stamps.

George Washington University researcher Andrew Reamer has calculated that even a 5.8 percent undercount of non-citizens in Florida would have cost the state roughly $28 million in Medicaid funding alone during 2015.

Florida’s population of about 21 million is projected to increase by as much as 5 million more residents by the 2030 Census, according to figures from the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Recent studies exploring the impact of a question on citizenship argue that asking it in 2020 could motivate some immigrants not to answer it because of worries about information-sharing between the Census bureau and other branches of government. And a miscount, Romalewski said, could mean some people have less political representation.

In that same strip of territory in Little Haiti, if people are not counted, state legislative districts would “need to be drawn over a larger area because fewer people were counted,” Romalewski said. “But again, the people who didn’t get counted didn’t disappear.”

The new ruling follows months of debate on whether the citizenship question would dissuade noncitizens from filling out the nationwide questionnaire. It was first proposed in a memo by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in March 26, 2018. Ross said collecting the data would be useful to protect the voting rights of minority groups.

But a series of memos published by the New York Times and Common Cause showed that a now-deceased Republican operative, Tom Hofeller, promoted the question within the Trump administration to redraw congressional maps to favor Republicans.

“This is one more addition to the attacks, of the incessant attack on our communities,” said Melissa Taveras, spokeswoman for the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “But regardless, we have to speak with our communities so they can be represented... so that they know that this is necessary to have enough resources.”

Federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing individual answers with other agencies. But this has not calmed fears among immigrants, as some advocates and lawmakers are grappling with ways to engage Florida immigrants and persuade those who might skip the Census out of fear of being targeted.

According to the Census Bureau’s study on attitudes toward the 2020 census, 32.5 percent of foreign-born survey respondents said they were “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” that their answers would be shared with other government agencies. About 34 percent are “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” that their answers would be used against them.

A separate study by the Census Bureau released this month found that the impact of an added citizenship question could drop self-response rates by 8 percentage points in households with any number of non-citizens, compared to those with U.S. citizens.

Meanwhile, about 9.2 percent of Florida residents were non-citizens between 2013 and 2017, a number higher than the national average of about 7 percent, Census figures show.

These Census estimates come from the American Community Survey, or ACS, which the Census bureau sends out every year to more than 3 million households. The ACS asks a wide variety of questions, including one about citizenship. About one in 12 foreign-born respondents nationwide filled out part of the ACS in 2017 but left blank the question about citizenship.

But not everyone in Florida thinks the question would affect the state’s count.

“I don’t necessarily believe the citizenship question will make a difference one way or another,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban Bovo, Jr., who chairs Miami-Dade’s 2020 Census Task Force. “Whether you’re a citizen or you’re not a citizen in South Florida, there is a stake here... There’s always going to be an excuse for not answering” the questionnaire.


Bovo said the task force would focus on sharing facts about why the Census is important and engaging overlooked communities during the crucial months before the count officially begins in April 1, 2020.

“We stand to gain two additional congressional seats in the state of Florida,” he said. “Those are seats that are being lost to other parts of the country... There’s a financing part to it but there’s also the political part.”

A recent study by the Urban Institute anticipated that even under similar circumstances to 2010, Florida could undercount as many as 96,800 people. With changes to the Census process that could result in lower response rates, over 320,000 people could be left out of the count, according to estimates from the Urban Institute.

Stephanie Berman Eisenberg, CEO and president of Carrfour Supportive Housing, getting more federal money for Florida will be necessary in the coming years to compensate for the growing population of Puerto Ricans fleeing the island and families in Florida’s Panhandle recovering from Hurricane Michael.

“Florida will be disproportionately impacted,” she said. “Any one of [the federal programs] by themselves don’t seem like they’re anything.” But, he added “we’re constantly thinking of how to do more with less.”

Bianca Padró Ocasio is a general assignment reporter for the Miami Herald. She has been a Florida journalist for several years, covering everything from crime and courts to hurricanes and politics. Her bilingual work telling the stories of the Puerto Rican community in Central Florida has been previously recognized by the Florida Society of News Editors and the Florida Sunshine State Awards.