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Should Citizenship Matter On The Census? PA Officials Say No

Michelle R. Smith
This March 23, 2018 file photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 Census.

There is exactly one year left before the 2020 census, and Pennsylvania officials said Monday, they’re taking steps to try and help the federal government count everyone.

Although preparation for the once-a-decade process is already well underway, there is still a major unknown element officials must contend with: Whether they’ll have to ask people if they’re citizens.

The census is important for many reasons, but a key one is that it gives state and federal governments the data they need to properly distribute resources.

State officials say it is particularly hard to get accurate counts of the poor and minority groups that often need services most.

Penn State Data Center Director Sue Copella, who works closely with US census officials, said every uncounted Pennsylvanian amounts to a loss of about $2,093 over ten years.

“If you lose ten people in your community, it turns into a lot of money that community will lose,” she said.

Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s administration has a commission aimed at figuring out how to get responses from people who, for instance, live in remote areas, are homeless, or don’t speak much English.

The census form itself will also include a number of changes aimed at addressing that.

For the first time, respondents will be able to fill out the survey online. Plus, state officials said about eight new languages will be available.

But they noted, they are concerned another proposed change might dampen responses. The Trump administration wants to use the census to ask people if they’re citizens.

Rick Vilello, a Deputy Secretary with the Community and Economic Development Department, said it shouldn’t matter—and he noted, he’s concerned that even including the question will make people afraid to send back their responses.

Federal funding formulas, he said, don’t rely on citizenship status.

“Educational, highway, healthcare—all of those rely on just raw numbers, he said. “We want the best raw numbers.”

On Twitter, President Donald Trump said doing a census without a citizenship question would be “meaningless” and a waste of money.  

The US Supreme Court is considering the question, and is expected to decide before surveys have to be printed this summer.

Along with the Wolf administration’s census commission, Pennsylvania is home to Keystone Counts—an independent assemblage of groups doing their own work to bring the census to hard-to-reach communities.

One of the member groups is Pennsylvania’s chapter of watchdog group Common Cause.

State Director Micah Sims said he’s a little concerned Wolf didn’t request any census funding in his 2019 budget proposal to lawmakers. He said he’s hoping some money gets funneled to the cause before lawmakers decide on a plan this June.

“It’s difficult to reach those communities, whether they be rural or in the cities,” he said. “I think it’s an investment that, hopefully, this legislature is willing to make in 2019.”