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NW officials seek accurate census count; citizenship question hurts efforts, they say after ruling

by Doug Thompson | July 1, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.
FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2019, file photo, the Supreme Court is seen at sunset in Washington. Vast changes in America and technology have dramatically altered how the census is conducted. But the accuracy of the once-a-decade population count is at the heart of the Supreme Court case over the Trump administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The justices hear arguments in the case Tuesday, April 23. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The U.S. Supreme Court's decision on a citizenship question for the 2020 census pleases many Northwest Arkansas leaders, according to local and state census-watchers.

"The demographics here are changing rapidly, and we know it," said Nelson Peacock, president of the Northwest Arkansas Council. "If you're going to embrace that change and fully account for it in your decisions, whether you're in business or planning, you need an accurate picture of who you are. You can't do that if there are people and you don't know they're here."

The council is a group of business and community leaders who address regional issues. The council is interested in getting a complete count of the population so the region gets its fair share of federal and state money, which is distributed based on population, Peacock said.

The U.S. Census Bureau planned to put the citizenship question on forms for next year's tally. Opponents sued, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled against the Census Bureau's supervising agency, the U.S. Commerce Department, on procedural grounds. The department now faces a tight deadline to redress its court arguments because it argued that the forms need to be finalized by today.

Besides an overall population count every 10 years, the census also provides statistics on household income, the number of children in each household, languages spoken and other details. Those kinds of details are vital for planning and decision-making, Peacock said.

Northwest Arkansas was 91% white 30 years ago, Peacock said. The Rogers School District reports that 55% of its students last school year were members of racial or ethnic minority groups. Hispanic students made up 46% of the district's enrollment.

Minority-group enrollment in Fayetteville is 32%, district figures show.

Some groups of people residing legally in the area would be leery of completing census forms that contained the citizenship question, said Irma Chavez, a member of Springdale's Complete Count Committee. The City Council formed the group specifically to address census issues.

"Take the Marshallese, for instance," Chavez said. Northwest Arkansas has one of the largest Marshallese populations in the continental United States, according to previous census figures. The U.S. has a treaty with the Marshall Islands allowing residents of that country to come to America. Given the recent disputes over immigration, both legal and illegal, those islanders would be reluctant to sign and return a government form declaring themselves as noncitizens, Chavez said.

Census information about individuals is kept confidential, she said. It isn't legally shared with immigration officials, tax-collection agencies or others, but persuading vulnerable groups to believe that isn't easy, Chavez said.

"We are people, too," she said. "We exist. Our kids go to the region's schools. We drive the highways. We work and we pay taxes."

She said Springdale and other cities in the region deserve their fair share of federal funding, such as highway money distributed largely on the basis of population.

Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse agreed.

"Regardless of one's position on the citizenship question, if included, it would create an additional headwind against achieving a complete and accurate count," Sprouse said in a statement Friday.

"Our attitude has been that whether the question is included or not, we've got to work hard at building trust and encouraging all residents to participate. An undercount will negatively impact the citizens of Springdale for the next 10 years," he said.

The Census Bureau planned to add the question for the first time since 1950. It was dropped in the 1960 census because administrators found that asking the question affected the accuracy of the tally by discouraging full responses by noncitizens, according to U.S. Census Bureau records.

Fewer responses lead to undercounts in areas with high migrant populations, census-takers concluded. Undercounts can mean underrepresentation in Congress or in state legislatures. They also can lead to inaccurate distribution of taxpayer money allocated though federal programs, said critics of the citizenship question, including those who sued to have the question removed.


Some state attorneys general and immigration and civil-rights groups filed federal lawsuits challenging the citizenship question, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

The court's 5-4 majority opinion said the citizenship question itself wasn't unconstitutional or illegal but that the Commerce Department, which administers the census, added the question first and tried to come up with a rationale later. Specifically, the court ruled, the department circumvented the federal Administrative Procedure Act, which is designed to ensure public input on decisions and prevent policymaking based on political preference or whims.

"If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

"The sole stated reason seems to have been contrived. We are presented, in other words, with an explanation for agency action that is incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency's priorities and decision-making process," Roberts wrote.

Representation in the U.S. House is based on the census figures, with districts being redrawn by state legislatures after each census.

Laura Kellams of Fayetteville is a member of the Arkansas Correct Count Committee, a statewide coalition of groups seeking the most accurate count attainable. She's also Northwest Arkansas director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a nonprofit group.

Kellams said a conservative estimate is that the 2010 census left out 6,500 children who were 4 years old or younger. That meant the state didn't receive $5.9 million a year for five major federal programs for children, she said.

"We have a lot to lose if there's not an accurate census because we are such a fast-growing region," Kellams said of Northwest Arkansas. Federal money is on the line for programs such as Head Start, which assists children in poverty, as well as for highway funding and water projects, she said.

"We are growing, and we need to be able to show we're growing," Kellams said.

Peacock agreed.

For planning purposes, "schools are reliant on that data, critically so," he said.

Metro on 07/01/2019

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