Fact Check: Meadows' Misleading Claim That Obama Administration Removed Census Citizenship Question

Apr 10, 2019

It’s up to the United States Supreme Court to decide whether the Trump administration can include a question about citizenship on the census. But that’s not keeping Congress from debating the question – and whether that’ll lead to undercounting or more accurate numbers.

During Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ testimony before the House Oversight Committee last month, Representative Mark Meadows whose district includes far western North Carolina, had this to say:

"One of the areas that has come up is that… the previous administration under President Barack Obama really was the first time that we didn't ask a citizen-type question."

He went on to emphasize that for the first time in a century, a citizenship question was not included. To sort fact from fiction, Bill McCarthy joined WFAE’s Lisa Worf from Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab.

Lisa Worf: So, Bill, is Meadow’s right? 

Bill McCarthy: Meadows is misleading here. I think it's best to characterize his statement as incomplete. He sort of muddles the facts in a way that could mislead the public. First, he seems to imply that a citizenship question is routinely asked as a  question on the census and that it's been asked every single decade for just about the past century. And that's misleading because while it is true that citizenship status has been inquired about on most census forms, it's only been asked by way of a long form that's been sent to a sample of the American public since 1950. So it's misleading to suggest that every decade we've been asking a question that is in the same mold as what the Trump administration is proposing.

Worf: So how long has the census asked about citizenship then?

McCarthy: The census has been administered every decade since 1790. And in 1790, it did not ask about citizenship. That was a question that first showed up in 1820 and then again in 1830. In 1870, it was asked but only for males ages 21 and older. Then it appeared again as sort of a general question in 1890 and in every decade since — with the exception of 1960, when for unexplained reasons it was removed.

But 1950 was the last time that the citizenship question was asked of every American household. And even then, it was asked as a follow-up question. So the Census workers when they were knocking on doors, they would ask where each person in the household was born. If they were born outside of the United States, they'd ask a foreign born if he naturalized. That was the language of the question.

Like I said, it was removed in 1960. And then in 1970, the Census Bureau started distributing two different types of questionnaires. So there was a short form that they sent to most American households and a long form that they sent to only one in every six households, approximately. Only that long form asked about citizenship. So all of a sudden, not every single respondent to the Census saw this question. They got the same kind of data, but they did it by way of sampling.

[Related Content: Meadows Wrongly Claims Obama Removed Census Citizenship Question In 2010]

Worf: And so that persisted then through 1990, 2000 and then what changed in 2010 under the Obama administration?

McCarthy: In 2010, the Obama administration got rid of the long form and they opted to use instead just a 10-question short form questionnaire. That 10-question short form questionnaire did not ask about citizenship, but that doesn't mean that the question went away entirely.

And that's because in 2005, the Census Bureau began a yearly American Community Survey. That was sent to 3.5 million households and it collected the same sort of demographic and socioeconomic information that had been previously collected by the long form. So it effectively replaced the long form. It was just sent to a slightly smaller percentage of American households and it was sent out every single year. And so because that was in place by 2010, the Obama administration only sent the short form and then used the demographic information collected through the American Community Survey to essentially pull together the same sort of information that they would have been collecting with the long form.

Worf: So how does Meadows explain his statement then?

McCarthy: So I reached out to meadows spokesperson — his communications director Ben Williamson — who said that the statement was in a larger context, talking about the first time that the decennial census was without a citizenship question on either the long or short form.

But if you look at the statement in question, it's not that precise. [Meadows] says 2010 was the first time that we didn't ask us citizen type question and that gets the history wrong because the Census Bureau did ask about citizenship that year in 2010, it just asked it through the American Community Survey instead of the long or short form. So if Meadows had been more precise with his quote, we might have a different verdict. But because he said that 2010 was just the first time we didn't have a citizenship type question at all. That's misleading.