Census Question Controversy

Bias, Discrimination & Hate
People, Identity & Culture
Census Worker 2010

U.S. Census Bureau/CC BY-ND 2.0

Grade Level:
Middle School,
High School
Common Core Standards:
Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening
Bias, Discrimination & Hate
People, Identity & Culture

Updated June 28, 2019

New Question for the 2020 Census

In March 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau released the questions for the upcoming 2020 Census. The data collected by the Census every ten years determines the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives based on its share of the population. It is also used to distribute billions of dollars in federal funds to local communities. One of the new (and controversial) 2020 Census questions is about citizenship. All U.S. households will be asked: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”

The Controversy Over the Proposed Citizenship Question

The new question was requested by the Justice Department, who says they need better data on the voting age population to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census, granted the Justice Department’s request. This has caused a great deal of controversy. Critics of the citizenship question argue that there are other ways to get the information and they believe this change will discourage non-citizens and even legal immigrants from participating. They say that would result in undercounting, which could shift the balance of power in the House of Representatives and lead to inadequate representation in Congress and reduced funding for those who need it most. Across the country, state attorneys general, civil rights groups and others challenged the citizenship question in court.

Supreme Court Blocks Citizenship Question

In June 2019, the Supreme Court blocked the citizenship question from being added to the 2020 census, saying that the justification the Trump administration offered for adding the question seemed “contrived” and not genuine. The decision sent the issue back to a lower court, leaving open the possibility that the Trump administration could try to provide a more acceptable justification. However, even if they are able to come up with something acceptable to the courts, it appears unlikely they will be able to move quickly enough to meet imminent census printing deadlines.

About this Lesson Plan

This lesson provides an opportunity for students in grades 8 through 12 to learn more about the U.S. Census, to understand and reflect upon the controversy over the citizenship question and to express their own point of view on the topic by writing a persuasive letter.

Learning Objectives:

  • Students will understand what the U.S. Census is and its purpose.
  • Students will develop questions for a potential School Census in order to gain insight into the kinds of questions that will get the most response and those questions that may suppress participation.
  • Students will reflect on the controversy about the citizenship question on the Census and write a persuasive letter to express their opinion.

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