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Polls: Most people still think census will ask about citizenship

The questionnaire won’t ask about citizenship status, but the misconception lingers

Most people incorrectly believe the census will include a citizenship question, according to a pair of surveys released Thursday, adding to concerns raised by advocates that fear over the question may depress participation in the decennial count.

The surveys, released by the Pew Research Center and the Urban Institute, measured different aspects of census preparation, but both found that more than half of respondents believe the census will include a citizenship question. The results come more than six months after President Donald Trump dropped his effort to add the question to the census and just weeks before the government sends out the first prompts to participate next month.

The Urban Institute survey, conducted in December, found that more than 69 percent of respondents thought the census would ask about citizenship status. The Pew survey, conducted in January, found that 56 percent of respondents believe the census would include a citizenship question.

“It’s not unusual to have some misinformation or people who are misinformed about the census,” said D’Vera Cohn, an author of the Pew study. She pointed out that a significant portion of respondents also incorrectly believe the census will ask about religion.

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The survey results dovetail with those released last year by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. That survey found that two-thirds of immigrants were concerned the census would ask about citizenship status. A similar percentage of respondents said they feared officials would use census responses for immigration enforcement.

Arturo Vargas, head of the NALEO Educational Fund, said at a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing last month that fears about the question have been “exacerbated by a hostile environment to immigrants that is perpetuated by the administration.”

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During a separate House hearing later, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said the agency plans to spread correct information about the census, including the fact the questionnaire will not ask about citizenship. He said the agency’s $500 million paid advertising campaign will lean on the positive benefits of census participation.

“We found that people were more interested in knowing the benefits and that is what we emphasize,” Dillingham said.

In its outreach efforts, the Census Bureau has emphasized the security and benefits of the census, which is used to determine the distribution of 435 congressional seats and more than $1.5 trillion in federal funds annually.

The Bureau will use parts of its advertising and outreach campaign to correct misinformation about the census process, according to a statement from an agency official.

“Several aspects of our robust communications campaign directly tackle the question of what is and is not on the 2020 Census, including earned media, partnerships, and paid search,” the statement said. “In addition to not asking citizenship, the 2020 Census will not ask about social security numbers, bank or credit card information, or any donations.”

The statement also said the public can report incorrect information by email to

Both the Pew and Urban Institute surveys found more than 70 percent of respondents intend to participate in this year’s count, and the Pew survey found more than 90 percent had heard of the process. Cohn said previous research suggests that number may go up as census outreach kicks into gear.

“It is not just advertising that is out there, of course. There are partner groups and governments that have advertising and outreach,” Cohn said. “All of that mixed in is creating an environment where people are more and more likely to hear about the census.”

The organizations behind both surveys cautioned that those who said they intend to participate are likely higher than the proportion who will respond on their own. The Census Bureau anticipates about 60 percent of households to self-respond, with most using the online response option.

Another knowledge gap in the Pew survey actually has a bright spot for census preparations. About one-fifth of respondents knew the census has an online response option, but about 60 percent said they would prefer responding to the census online.

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