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Census Case Message Matters More than Court Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the Trump administration cannot ask people responding to the census whether they are a U.S. citizen.

It’s a surprising victory for advocates of a census that counts everyone in the United States. They argue that including a citizenship question suppresses participation.

But any celebration should be tempered, because as a practical matter, the case was lost long ago.

The message behind a policy proposal like the citizenship question often matters more than the policy itself when it comes to influencing personal choices. Immigrants and their families might be afraid to participate in the census because they have received consistent messages that stoke fear of deportation if they participate or interact with the government in any way. Today’s ruling — while important — can’t erase messages President Trump has sent over the past three years.

Colorado needs a full, accurate count in the 2020 census for several reasons.

The census determines federal funding levels for the next 10 years. The Colorado Health Institute estimates that Colorado could lose a quarter billion dollars in federal funding over the next decade for its health programs if 4 percent of the people who live here aren’t counted.

Social sciences research depends heavily on the census. Its data is the foundation of surveys like the Colorado Health Access Survey.

A state’s political power is also tied to the census. States with higher population counts get more members in Congress and more electoral votes for president.

Efforts to Get a Full Count Already Undermined

Unfortunately, we have evidence that a full, accurate count has already been undermined.

The debate over the “public charge” rule shows how this dynamic works.

U.S. citizens who have immigrants in their families often don’t use public benefits such as food stamps because of the public charge rule, which can deny legal permission to live and work in the U.S. to immigrants who are likely to use public assistance programs. The rule does not directly affect U.S. citizens, but publicity about rule changes has led to disenrollment by families of immigrants. In fact, U.S. citizen children of immigrant parents are twice as likely to be uninsured — even though they qualify for Medicaid — as other Medicaid-eligible kids.

This isn’t just a theory. Census personnel have already noticed that families of immigrants are afraid to have any official contact with the government, including through the census.

The Census Bureau conducts focus groups and practice surveys to see how well ordinary people understand the questions. In testing for the 2020 census last year, researchers noticed a pronounced increase in people who are unwilling to “register” with the government, as one person who took a trial version of the census called it, according to an official Census Bureau memo.

People in focus groups spontaneously brought up concerns about the “Muslim ban,” DACA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and related topics that have been in the news. Some Spanish-speaking respondents refused to participate in test surveys or gave incomplete information about the people in their households. This happened months before today’s Supreme Court ruling.

The takeaway is that the high court’s decision probably won’t have much of an effect on census participation compared with the drumbeat of news since the 2016 presidential campaign that has caused fear in immigrant communities.

In other words, sometimes perception is more “real” than reality — the perception of a policy influences people’s behavior more than the content of a policy.

Colorado leaders will need to work hard to counter the message that immigrant communities shouldn’t participate in the census. The Legislature made a start by passing a bill to spend $6 million on outreach to promote the census.

Civic organizations, local governments, business, health and human services community — all can join to send a new message: Everyone counts. And this, more than any policy implications, may be the most important message in today’s ruling.

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