Nonprofits and Foundations Can Advocate to Remove the Citizenship Question from Census 2020

By Oscar Peralta and Nona Randois

While the census is still two years away, important and consequential decisions regarding census policy are being made today and nonprofits and foundations have an opportunity to weigh in.

Notably, the U.S. Department of Commerce, which houses the Census Bureau, is currently soliciting input from the public about the information to be collected in the census. This window for comments will end on August 7, 2018.

In this first of a series of Bolder Advocacy blog posts on the census, we look at the government’s proposal to add a question to the census about citizenship status. It’s important for nonprofits and foundations to know that IRS rules permit them to weigh in on this issue without having to track and report their efforts as lobbying.

Why the Census Matters

The census, in which all people living in the are counted every decade, has far-reaching consequences and implications. It is used to determine the apportionment of congressional representation and is used by businesses to make important investment decisions. The census shapes how billions of federal dollars are allocated to states: for example, when funding the Federal Aid Highway Program and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The census also impacts many nonprofits’ bottom line as federal dollars are an important source of funding for many service nonprofits, and an undercount of people in your area will mean fewer federal resources to meet local needs.

It is imperative that the 2020 census count is fair, accurate, and inclusive. This will require effort and advocacy to count those that are often, sadly, undercounted. Without effective advocacy, thoughtful outreach, and strategic investment, there is a substantial risk of undercounting certain constituencies, such as people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, low-income individuals, children, single parents, and renters.  501(c)(3)s will be critical voices in advocating for and providing resources and support that will ensure all people are counted in 2020. Regardless of whether your nonprofit works with people most likely to be undercounted, the amount of money available to nonprofits in your area could substantially decrease if there is an undercount.

The Citizenship Question

In March 2018, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that the 2020 Census would add a question asking residents if they are U.S. citizens. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross stated that the citizenship question, which has not been included in the census since 1950, would help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act. Many groups, however, have expressed concern that including a citizenship question, especially in light of the Trump Administration’s current “zero tolerance” policy for undocumented immigrants, will dramatically reduce participation by immigrant communities. Many are concerned that immigrant communities will be less inclined to participate in the census due to fear that information could improperly be shared and used against them. An undercount of foreign-born and immigrant communities would reduce the funding allocated to states and local communities with large immigrant communities and also negatively affect their congressional apportionment.

Furthermore, many have raised concerns not only about the politics of including the question, but also the risk of undermining the overall accuracy of the census by adding an untested question at the last minute. For instance, in January, six former Census Directors wrote a letter stating, “We strongly believe that adding an untested question on citizenship status at this late point in the decennial planning process would put the accuracy of the enumeration and success of the census in all communities at grave risk.”

The Public Comment Period

Even though the Department of Commerce has already announced its intent to include the citizenship question, it still must go through a formal process to be able to ask the question. For instance, Under the Paperwork Reduction Act, the Department of Commerce has to comply with procedural requirements before collecting census information. These requirements include two 60-day public comment periods, the first of which is taking place now.

The purpose of the current comment period is to solicit input from the public about:

  • whether the proposed collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency, including whether the information has practical utility;
  • whether the agency’s estimate of the burden of the proposed collection of information is accurate;
  • how to enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected; and
  • how to minimize the burden of the collection of information on those who are to respond, including through the use of automated collection techniques or other forms of information technology.

This provides an opening for the public to discuss whether the citizenship question is necessary, proper, burdensome, useful, etc. Given recent news reports suggesting that the question was not really intended to enforce the Voting Rights Act, but rather may have been politically motivated, it shouldn’t take a statistician or a policy wonk to make the case that the citizenship question isn’t necessary, proper, or useful.

It’s Not Lobbying

Importantly for private foundations and nonprofits with limited lobbying budgets, this type of public comment period is administrative, not legislative. Since the comments are directed to the Department of Commerce about a matter that is under its jurisdiction, this advocacy does not constitute lobbying under IRS rules. This means that private foundations can weigh in on this question, and that public charities can do so without tracking and reporting it as lobbying on their 990s.

Want to learn more? Here are some nonprofit and foundation sites to get you started:

Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation’s Funders Census Initiative 2020

United Philanthropy Forum Census 2020 Initiative

California’s Census Policy Advocacy Network

The Leadership Conference 2020 Census

The Census Project


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