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April 3, 2018

One Good Reason to Ask a Citizenship Question on the 2020 Census

 

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, at the request of the Justice Department, has instructed the U.S. Census Bureau to include a question on the 2020 decennial census asking whether the respondent is a U.S. citizen. He’s receiving a lot of pushback for this change, mostly from the left, especially politicians and rent-seeking groups that thrive on handing out taxpayer dollars. 

But such a question could be very helpful for those of us who work in public policy—for example, in counting the uninsured. 

The Census Bureau included a citizenship question through 1950, stopping in 1960. As a result, when the Census Bureau releases its estimate of the uninsured, policy analysts and elected officials do not know how many of the respondents are (1) citizens, (2) aliens in the U.S. legally, or (3) undocumented. 

During health care reform debates in the past, some of us pointed out that perhaps 25 percent of the uninsured were undocumented aliens and so would likely not be covered by health insurance reform efforts—for example, Obamacare excluded illegals from receiving health insurance subsidies. 

Even today, of the roughly 27.6 million (2016) uninsured, perhaps 8 million or so are illegals ineligible for taxpayer subsidies, and very few of them are going to spend their own money, especially given the high cost of Obamacare coverage. They will simply remain uninsured. 

But supporters of big-government health coverage used the total number of uninsured—illegals, documented aliens and citizens—so that they could emphasize the largest number possible to increase the pressure to do something. Had the Census Bureau been able to separate the number of illegal uninsured residents, that might have helped inform the policy debate. 

To be sure, the Census Bureau takes other surveys, as Ross notes in his letter justifying his decision to include a citizenship question. But while more frequent, those surveys are much smaller, more limited samples. 

The result is that estimating the number of uninsured who are illegal and not eligible for federal or state programs has mostly been a guessing game. 

While a citizenship question might discourage some participation, it would help take a little of the guesswork out of the effort to accurately track the number of uninsured.


 

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