Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Fill Out Your Census Form in Red or Blue Ink

• October 27, 2009 • 2:30 PM

So, the rather nerdy constitutional pursuit of counting everybody in the country once a decade has become a political issue like everything else.

Next year we embark on the ultimate national research project: the decennial census. The basic headcount seems as apolitical an endeavor as government could design; everyone, regardless of race, party affiliation or tax bracket, gets tallied just the same.

Yet somehow, the 2010 exercise has become as controversial as the public option.

Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann has declared she won’t fill out most of her census. Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele has suggested the Obama Administration wants to rig the whole thing. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has proposed an amendment that would insert a last-minute question requiring people to identify their citizenship status – or lack thereof.

And as one Hispanic organization is promoting widespread participation from that traditionally undercounted population, another group is urging Hispanics to boycott the census all together.

So how did we get to the point of politicizing such a fundamentally nonpolitical — even geeky — data collection (and one that, critics may forget, is carried out every 10 years regardless of which party is in power, by order of the U.S. Constitution)?

“This is not the first time this has happened,” said Jill Wilson, a senior research analyst with the Brookings Institution. “But I do think that this year it’s particularly bad, and there are probably a number of reasons for that.”

A big one is the ongoing debate over immigration reform.

Population counts taken from the census are used to redraw congressional districts and reapportion representation in Washington. Vitter figures high-immigration, Democratic-leaning states like California stand to benefit disproportionately over states like Louisiana from the head count of illegal immigrants who are included in the census but not eligible to vote.

Never mind that it would take hundreds of millions of dollars to alter the questionnaire so late in the process (or that inserting such a personal question should only further offend Michele Bachmann). Most fundamentally, the 14th amendment to the Constitution specifies the census count “the whole number of persons in each State,” language that differs notably from other constitutional references to “citizens.”

Granted, it can be confusing that we apportion representation by counting people who can’t vote.

“And maybe we should at some point have a discussion about whether that’s the way it should be done,” Wilson said. “But the way and timing [Vitter] brought it up is not the way it should be done.”

A report released earlier this year by the Pew Hispanic Center also reveals that illegal immigrants are more geographically dispersed today than ever before, drawing a landscape more nuanced than Vitter’s vision of states with immigrants and those without.

His amendment is unlikely to pass, and Wilson suspects he knows this. But its mere publicity may be enough to discourage immigrants already leery of the census from participating. And each head that isn’t counted represents actual dollars in social services and federal programs communities won’t receive.

Adding up all of the federal programs that rely either in whole or in part on census data to dole out funds, Brookings has estimated that federal spending per head counted was about $1,400 in 2008. The Census Bureau has previously estimated that 10 to 15 percent of unauthorized immigrants were not counted during the 2000 census. If they’re undercounted again at that rate next year, Wilson projects their communities would annually lose between $1.6 and $2.5 billion — money that would be spent on everything from public schools and roads to food stamps and substance-abuse prevention.

Politicians who discourage participation by immigrants jeopardize the federal support needed to accommodate them. Hispanic groups like the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials get this and are promoting a Spanish-language census campaign around the slogan “It’s time! Make yourself count!”

The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders has taken the opposite approach, suggesting illegal immigrants refuse to participate in the census to draw attention to needed immigration reform. In a sign this might not be an effective strategy, they seem to have aligned their means, if not their end, with David Vitter (whose own campaign aligns poorly with other Republicans who want help paying for immigrants if no one will stop them from coming).

All of which suggests it makes little sense — or, rather, is just too hard — to politicize the census.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.