Since the early days of his campaign, from his proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border to his discredited committee on voter fraud, President Trump has declared war on America’s changing demography. His administration has followed through on that strategy with a proposal to add a question to the 2020 census asking about citizenship. If the question remains on the form, millions of households, particularly Hispanic and Asian-American, could skip the census, leading to an overrepresentation of white Americans during this once-a-decade count.
Six lawsuits seeking to remove the proposed question are moving through the federal courts, with the first trial likely to take place this fall.
If it is added to the census form, the citizenship question will distort our understanding of who resides in the country. What this selective underenumeration will not do is make America’s growing racial minority populations disappear. The losers from this undercount include members of Mr. Trump’s older white base, who will suffer from lost investments in a younger generation, whose successes and contributions to the economy will be necessary to keep America great.
The demographic trends make this plain. America’s white population is growing tepidly because of substantial declines among younger whites. Since 2000, the white population under the age of 18 has shrunk by seven million, and declines are projected among white 20-somethings and 30-somethings over the next two decades and beyond. This is a result of both low fertility rates among young whites and modest white immigration — a trend that is not likely to change despite Mr. Trump’s wish for more immigrants from Norway.
The likely source of future gains among the nation’s population of children, teenagers and young working adults is minorities — Hispanics, Asians, blacks and others — most of whom are born in the United States.
Indeed, the only part of the white population that is growing appreciably is older people, the same group to whom Mr. Trump is appealing. Thanks to aging baby boomers, the older retirement-age white population will grow by one-third over the next 15 years and, with it, the need for the government to support Social Security, Medicare, hospitals and the like. Revenue for these programs will have to come from the younger minority population. If the census does not accurately count this population, then all the services that support children and future workers, such as public education, Head Start, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid, will be shortchanged.
Although the slowly growing, rapidly aging white population will be accurately counted, the fast-growing minority school-age and young adult populations that represent the nation’s future will not get their due — demographically, politically or economically.
An in-house Census Bureau analysis based on 2010 survey data found that the inclusion of a citizenship question reduced the response rate among households that have at least one noncitizen individual. While 7 percent of United States residents are themselves noncitizens, 14 percent live in households that include one or more noncitizens. The latter figure rises to 46 percent among all Hispanics and to 45 percent among Asian-Americans, compared with just 8 percent among blacks and 3 percent among whites.
Let’s assume that one in three people in Hispanic and Asian noncitizen households refuses to answer the census. If that’s the case, the Hispanic share of the United States population would drop by 2.1 percentage points (from 17.3 to 15.2 percent) and the total white population share would rise by 2.2 percentage points (from 62 to 64.2 percent).
This imbalance would influence congressional reapportionment, hurting large, immigrant-heavy states. It will also shape how congressional and state legislative districts are drawn, favoring rural and small areas at the expense of large metropolitan areas, since noncitizen households are far more prevalent in the latter.
The underenumeration of racial minorities would also misallocate billions of dollars in state and federal funds for housing assistance, job training, community development and a variety of social services that should be distributed on the basis of census counts. It would provide a faulty framework for surveys that will inform thousands of policy and business decisions, such as where to locate schools, hospitals, employment sites or retail establishments catering to different population groups, over the next decade.
Through his rhetoric and actions, Mr. Trump stands for keeping America white, appealing to his base by implicitly promising to preserve the racial status quo. But Mr. Trump’s supporters, and the country in general, must not ignore the generational dependency between older whites and younger minorities. Forcing an inaccurate accounting of who resides in the nation will have long-term negative consequences for everyone.
William H. Frey, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a population studies professor at the University of Michigan, is the author of “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America.”