Just about one year ago, I started a column with this sentence: “Data is great-a.”
That column, titled “Don’t screw up the data,” was about the potential of adding a citizenship question to the U.S. Census coming up next year. Asking the question was seemingly a priority of the Trump administration — for reasons that appeared to change day-to-day depending which D.C. official you asked about it.
This week, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration’s justification for wanting to add the question was insufficient, the president backed off the fight.
As many sources noted during the battle, the United States government can obtain citizenship data — likely more accurate data, too — by compiling records of federal agencies, which is the direction the Trump administration is taking right now in light of the recent roadblocks.
And it’s not like the federal government doesn’t have citizenship data already. The Census Bureau does collect that kind of data via the American Community Survey. That’s not a survey of every household like the Census, but a survey that hits about one in every 40 households. Then statisticians and demographers used the input to model out ongoing year-to-year estimates.
That information is readily available. I know that, because I used that exact set of data to do a story in February 2017, shortly after President Donald Trump was elected.
That story, “Noncitizens make up small percentage of population,” included the figures that in our four-county area the number of noncitizens — which accounts for any non-U.S. citizen here legally or not — was Noble County with 1,374, LaGrange County, with 638; Steuben County, 465; and DeKalb County, 330.
Like conservatives, I believe that having good data about the number of citizens and noncitizens living in any one place is important data to have. At the same time, I agreed fully with liberals that adding a citizenship question on the Census would likely severely impact the accuracy of the count.
Think about it: If you were an undocumented resident living in America and a government form came to your house, with your specific address on it, asking your specific name and then asking if you’re a citizen, would you answer that? Add on to that that the Trump administration has talked so aggressively about going after illegal immigrants and you’d have to be insane to fill that form out and return it.
Yes, federal law dictates that personalized Census records are confidential for 72 years. So, technically, if the administration wanted to try to comb Census responses to conduct immigration enforcement, that would be exceptionally illegal.
I doubt the average American knows that — I didn’t even know that until I first heard it on an NPR news story a month or two ago — much less someone who is living in the nation without proper citizenship paperwork.
The Census Bureau has a hard enough time trying to get as close to 100% participation as it is. But add on a question that’s likely to deter potential millions of households from answering and all you’re probably going to get is even more incomplete data.
And maybe that’s the point, after papers from a now-deceased lawyer came to light, suggesting a Census question would suppress response and therefore potentially lead to reduced apportionment of political seats and/or reduced federal money to areas with high noncitizen populations.
Regardless, the underlying point is that data is valuable. Statistics are valuable tools. They are, at their bedrock, facts. Counting is a skill even small children learn, because it’s important to know that if someone says they have 10 apples, you know and believe and trust in the concept of what 10 is.
In my journalism career, a lot of the bigger news stories I like to write are what we call in the industry “data-driven.” Those stories start with data at their foundation, a set of reliable, fact-backed, properly sourced figures.
But the key in that is that data is only the starting point, not the ending point. Looking at those numbers, identifying trends or outliers or interesting patterns and then investigating why those things exist, that’s what builds a strong story. That’s what helps shade in and tell the stories about the makeup of our local communities, states, nation and world.
So, that, at its heart, is why the announcement that the citizenship question is (probably) dead was good news to me.
Yes, it is valuable to know how many citizens and noncitizens live in America. But there are better ways to get that information without damaging the source material of our Constitutionally mandated accounting of all people every 10 years.
Not asking the citizenship question on the Census is the right move in the interest of American data.