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The Trump administration's census question degrades our data -- and our democracy

Catherine Rampell on

WASHINGTON -- It's not enough that President Trump and his advisers have been arguing for years that official government data is bad, untrustworthy, phony, manipulated for political gain. Now they are working to lend credence to these smears and conspiracy theories -- by making them true.

Unless, that is, the Supreme Court intervenes.

During the Obama administration, Trump repeatedly claimed that official numbers released by our independent federal statistical agencies -- such as the unemployment rate -- were fake. Legions of career civil servants were all cooking the books to make Democrats look better, he claimed. Trump's economic advisers and boosters (including Stephen Moore and Herman Cain, whom Trump now plans to nominate for the Federal Reserve Board) joined in the baseless conspiracy theorizing. As did some other high-profile Obama critics who should have known better.

Troublingly, it turns out a lot of other Americans are on board with this numerical nihilism. In a poll last fall from Marketplace and Edison Research, about 4 in 10 Americans said they either completely or somewhat distrust data about the economy reported by the federal government.

And since Trump has taken office, he has worked to justify such distrust by actively degrading the quality of data -- specifically, by seeking to make the 2020 Census less accurate.

The Trump administration wants to add, at the last minute, a new question to the census. I say "last minute" because usually new survey questions go through years of research, field-testing and public comment, as required by law and federal regulations.

 

This is to make sure that, among other things, any changes will not disrupt the accuracy of an enumeration mandated by the Constitution.

"It's pretty well known that when you change the context of a data-collection instrument, unexpected things can happen," said John Thompson, a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau. "The only way to understand what's going on is to test it."

The question the administration wants to shoehorn in without this process turns out to be particularly disruptive: It asks about citizenship. Given rising levels of government distrust among immigrant and ethnic minority populations, the question could be reasonably expected to depress response rates among these groups and lead to significant undercounts or otherwise inaccurate data.

In fact, in unrelated survey testing in 2017, respondents told census workers that they fear how their data might be used against them or their loved ones. They expressed concerns about the "Muslim ban," anxiety over "registering" household members and the dissolution of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Some falsified their names, birth dates and other demographic information.

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