When census taking is a recipe for controversy

Anjana Ahuja in the Financial Times: “Population counts are important tools for development, but also politically fraught…The UN describes a census as “among the most complex and massive peacetime exercises a nation undertakes”. Given that social trends, migration patterns and inequalities can be determined from questions that range from health to wealth, housing and even religious beliefs, censuses can also be controversial. So it is with the next one in the US, due to be conducted in 2020. The US Department of Justice has proposed that participants should be quizzed on their citizenship status. Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, warned the journal Science that many would refuse to take part. Ms Gupta said that, in the current political climate, enquiring about citizenship “would destroy any chance of an accurate count, discard years of careful research and increase costs significantly”.

The row has taken on a new urgency because the 2020 census must be finalised by April. The DoJ claims that a citizenship question will ensure that ethnic minorities are treated fairly in the voting process. Currently, only about one in six households is asked about citizenship, with the results extrapolated for the whole population, a process observers say is statistically acceptable and less intrusive. In 2011, the census for England and Wales asked for country of birth and passports held — but not citizenship explicitly. It is one of those curious cases when fewer questions might lead to more accurate and useful data….(More)”.