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Why Is The Census Bureau Still Asking A Citizenship Question On Forms?

A citizenship question won't be included on 2020 census forms, but other Census Bureau surveys ask about a person's U.S. citizenship status.
Hansi Lo Wang
A citizenship question won't be included on 2020 census forms, but other Census Bureau surveys ask about a person's U.S. citizenship status.

Editor's note: This story originally identified the 2020 census questionnaires for American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands as Census Bureau forms that include a question about U.S. citizenship status. After the story was published, the Census Bureau revealed that it is removing the citizenship question it was originally planning to include on next year's island-area census forms.

You won't see a citizenship question on the 2020 census. After a more than yearlong legal fight, three federal judges are making sure of that by permanently blocking the Trump administration from using next year's head count to ask about the U.S. citizenship status of every person living in every household in the country.

But the Census Bureau, which conducts more than 100 surveys for the federal government, is continuing to ask about citizenship on other forms, which have sparked plenty of confusion around the country.

Unlike the census, these surveys collect responses from only a sample of households, and their results produce anonymized citizenship data that the government has relied on for years to, for example, protect the voting rights of racial minorities. Controversy over the question the Trump administration failed to add to the 2020 census, however, has drawn extra attention to these other citizenship questions.

Here's a short guide to some of the Census Bureau surveys that currently include a citizenship question:

2019 Census Test

Since June 13 of this year, the Census Bureau has been conducting an experiment to gauge public reaction to a citizenship question on the census. Around 480,000 U.S. households were randomly selected to complete test forms — half of which include the question, "Is this person a citizen of the United States?"

Plans for the test were first disclosed publicly in November as part of last-minute preparations for the Trump administration's late request for the question. The bureau had intended to proceed with the test regardless of how the courts ruled. Researchers says the responses, which will be collected through Aug. 15, can help inform any officials who may want to add the question to future census forms.

American Community Survey

For more than a decade, the Census Bureau has collected citizenship information from a sample of U.S. households through the American Community Survey. It replaced what was known as the long-form census questionnaire after the survey was fully rolled out in 2005. Currently, about 1 in 38 households receives the survey throughout the year. The citizenship data are used to help enforce part of the Voting Rights Act.

Current Population Survey

Sponsored in part by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Current Population Survey is conducted every month in person or over the phone with around 60,000 households. The results are used to produce monthly numbers about the U.S. labor force. The survey asks about people's U.S. citizenship status to generate "more accurate statistics regarding the labor force supply and demand," according to the Census Bureau's manual for interviewers.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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