Editor’s note: NPR National Correspondent Hansi Lo Wang spoke with the U.S. Census Bureau’s Acting Director Ron Jarmin in an exclusive interview — Jarmin’s first with a news organization since stepping in last July to lead the federal government’s largest statistical agency.
Jarmin discussed how the bureau is preparing for the upcoming 2020 census, including the controversial new citizenship question.
The following is a partial transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
Hansi Lo Wang: You’ve been in this position as acting director for more than a year now.
Ron Jarmin: Just over a year, yep.
How is it different than when it was before, when you first started?
Obviously, I have had several different jobs over my tenure here at the Census Bureau, each with increasing amounts of responsibility, obviously. I used to be the senior career person, running the research methodology area. And I think that more than anything sort of prepped me for this job in the sense that I dealt with the entire range of activities across the Census Bureau, from economic surveys to household surveys to the 2020 census. And so I think that was very good preparation for this.
Because now you’re seeing all of it.
Well, I’m seeing a lot more 2020 census than I’m seeing the other parts of the Census Bureau. There’s a lot going on here even without the census going on.
Let’s talk more about that. Just help explain to our listeners the 2020 census. A very basic question: who is supposed to be counted in the 2020 census?
The census is in the Constitution, and it asks for an enumeration of the resident population of the U.S. that is used to apportion the Congress amongst the 50 states. States use the numbers for redistricting, and billions of federal dollars are allocated based on census numbers. So who is supposed to be counted? All residents are supposed to be counted.
And when you say all residents, does citizenship status matter? Does immigration status matter?
It does not.
Does not. And that has been the case since?
As far as I know … it’s in the Constitution, the resident population, and the courts have interpreted that to mean everybody.
Well, certainly, historically, there have been debates about the Three-Fifths Compromise and we can get into that, but we don’t have to right now. There is a lawsuit right now the Census Bureau is facing, and also names you, by the state of Alabama, which is arguing that immigrants who are staying in the U.S. illegally should not be counted in census numbers for apportionment. What is the Census Bureau’s position on whether or not unauthorized immigrants should be included in census numbers used for reapportionment?
The census doesn’t necessarily have a position on what should be used for apportionment. Our position is that we’re going to count everybody, and we’re going to provide those numbers to the president at the end of 2020. As it stands right now, I think legal cases have determined that the entire resident population is what’s used for apportionment. But obviously that’s not a Census Bureau call per se. But we do the census that we are directed to by law. And right now that law says that — it’s to count the entire resident population.
I have done some reporting on the test run that’s happening right now in Providence County in Rhode Island. This is for the test run of the 2020 census. I was up there with my colleague Marisa Peñaloza. We spoke with a number of unauthorized immigrants who are residents of Providence County and expressed a lot of fear about participating. Some decided to participate, some, at the point we spoke with them, were still not sure, were avoiding it. If that is any indication of what we may see again in 2020, what do you say to people who are afraid of taking part in the census in 2020?
Well, I think there’s a number of motivations why people are hesitant to participate in the census, in addition to immigrant communities being concerned about things like the citizenship question. So we always have need to encourage people to participate in the census regardless of the content of the form. You know, the one thing that’s important to remind everybody is that they need to be counted. They don’t get their share [of] representation in Congress, their neighborhoods don’t get their share of federal dollars, they don’t get their share of representation in their state legislatures if they’re not counted.
Responding to the census is safe and secure, and we only use the data for statistical purposes. So fears that we’re going to use the data and to give it to law enforcement agencies and things like that are unfounded. We do not do that. The data come here and are only released in sort of aggregate tabulations where the identity of a particular individual, household or business cannot be determined from what we publish.
So we take the pledge of confidentiality very seriously. It’s in law. It’s in Title 13 of the U.S. Code that the data that we collect on our censuses and surveys is to be kept confidential and used only for statistical purposes. We take that very seriously. Obviously we could go to jail if we knowingly breached that, but I think more importantly, from our perspective at the Census Bureau, and I think this is true at other statistical agencies both in the U.S. and without, is that the trust of the respondents is critical if we’re going to be successful in doing our job.
The quality of the data is the best when it’s given to us voluntarily by respondents, whether they be households or businesses. Confidentiality is [an] absolutely critical element of the success of our mission, and so we take that very seriously and encourage others to help spread the, you know, there are trusted voices out there that need to get to those folks that doubt that message and help ensure that people understand that we take this very seriously and we’re not going to use their data to give to law enforcement or any other sort of non-statistical type activity.
Some critics of the citizenship question have raised that there is publicly-available information down to what is known as a census-block level, neighborhood level, of data that is anonymized. Right now, as you said, the Census Bureau does not release anything that identifies individuals. But if the census citizenship question were to stay on, anyone could request a level of data about who is a citizen and who is not a citizen in a neighborhood. And there’s concerns that that could be used by a law enforcement agency or anyone else.
You would only get counts and, to some degree, you can get that now, at a slightly higher level of geographic specificity, from American Community Survey data. But there is this constant tension between providing really detailed data, which if you were speaking with our data users, they’d want the really detailed information. Everybody wants data that’s really granular down to the neighborhood level, or at a level of industrial or occupational-type detail. It doesn’t really matter what dimension you’re looking at, people want detailed data. And the data are more useful and powerful when they’re detailed, but obviously, we have a legal mandate to protect confidentiality. And so we try to produce data that’s as detailed as possible but still maintain the pledge of confidentiality that we give to our respondents. So you would never be able to tell individually or at a household level whether folks had any particular characteristic, whether it’s race, ethnicity, citizenship status or what have you. But you would be able to tell like the proportion in a given area.
And that is something people have raised as a concern, that depending on what kind of neighborhood you live in, maybe there [are] certain parts that have a high percentage of, let’s say for example, noncitizens versus other parts.
And so I think what we do to protect the confidentiality of the data is sufficient to protect our respondents. You know, obviously, there’s lots of ways of knowing about neighborhoods other than using Census Bureau data. And so I think that’s always going to be out there, that you might be able to, you know, you could drive down the street and look for yourself. Again, we really try to produce the most detailed useful data possible and still maintain the confidentiality of the responses.
There were some e-mails released as part of these lawsuits against the citizenship question. One of those was an e-mail to the commerce secretary from Kris Kobach, the current Kansas secretary of state. I wanted to ask specifically because there was proposed wording for a citizenship question that Mr. Kobach wrote in this e-mail to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that included responses that were not included in the current ACS version, the American Community Survey version, which is what Commerce Secretary Ross approved. Those responses would ask about noncitizens’ immigration status, whether or not they’re a green-card holder. Do you think the government should know how many noncitizens are living illegally in the country? And should the census be used as a tool, a survey tool, to collect this information?
I think that the census or Census Bureau surveys have been used to understand the citizenship status of individuals and households for many decades going back into the 1800s even.
The census is very much a tool of providing information for Congress and for policymakers in general and for the public as well. And so we do do the census that law directs us to do. The information that policymakers need is obviously one of the main inputs into that process. That said, I think that you need to make sure that in this case, with a short time frame, we urged the secretary very strongly that the question that we have, that we’ve been using, that has been answered by tens of millions of households on the American Community Survey, that we know that people can understand, and that they can answer and that their response rates to that particular question are in line with other household characteristics on the American Community Survey, that if we were going to go that route, that’s the question that we should ask.
Although my understanding is that originally Census Bureau staffers, according to this memo from the chief scientist, Dr. John Abowd, the initial recommendation was to either not ask a citizenship question or to use administrative records, or existing government records about citizenship.
Exactly. So recall what the request was. The official request from the Justice Department was for block-level, citizen voting age population data that they use for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. And so we reviewed that requirement, block-level, citizen voting age population tables. And so we review what we can do to meet that requirement.
So one option was to do nothing and to stay with the status quo and continue to produce those tables from the American Community Survey. That’s not a real viable option for block-level data because the ACS doesn’t have a sampling rate that you could produce quality statistics at the block level. The other, second option was to do, as they requested, was to put the question on the census form. The third option was to use administrative records, mostly from the Social Security Administration but from some other agencies as well. And that appeared to be a good option to the team that we had looking at it. Neither the question on the census nor the administrative record approach are perfect. There are holes. There are gaps in the coverage of the administrative data, and we know that not everyone’s going to answer every question on the census. So I think that our recommendation to the secretary was that we use the administrative records option. He came back and asked us to put together some information on both the combined, you know using the question and the administrative records, and that was the direction he chose to take.
But in your opinion, the solution that you were advocating for was?
The Census Bureau’s recommendation to the secretary was to use administrative records. He chose to go with an option that [uses] both the administrative records and the question, and so we’re working right now. We have a team sort of coming up with the robust methodology of combining those two sources of information to produce those block-level citizen voting age population tables requested by Justice.
Right now there are multiple lawsuits and you’re part of them. You’re named as one of the defendants here. Stepping back for a moment, regardless of how these lawsuits pan out and whether or not the question stays on or not … a federal judge in New York City has already said that he thinks that there is evidence that suggests bad faith in the Trump administration and suggests that possibly, he hasn’t made a ruling yet, but possibly adding this question was politically motivated and not necessarily related to law enforcement, trying to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
That’s already out there from a federal judge. And I just wonder as someone who is in charge of overseeing and trying to manage public perception of the 2020 census, which is a big part of whether or not the public will participate, are you concerned that this legal fight already putting the 2020 census at risk just by damaging perceptions about the 2020 census as possibly becoming a political tool?
Right. So the Census Bureau, I just want to remind you and your listeners, is a very apolitical organization. We strive to do our job professionally, and we will do so whether the question is on the form or not.
That said, controversy about the content of the census does complicate our messaging. We need to get responses from everybody whether they like the question or they don’t like the question. We need to be able to get both sides of this debate to respond to the census. So that’s our need.
So we’ll be working with our advertising partners and crafting messaging to try to address those concerns. I think in terms of the uncertainty that the lawsuits cause, the longer this goes unresolved one way or the other I think that that increases potential cost and risk to the program. The longer we go without knowing exactly what’s going to be on there, that could be a risk.
Right now we’re planning to do a census with the citizenship question. If the courts or Congress tell us otherwise, we’ll have to make quick plans to adjust. But again we will do everything we can, and we have a really good team working on this.
I’m confident that either way we can get a good, complete and accurate census working with both our paid partners and our non-paid partners throughout the country. You were at the NALEO event a few weeks ago. Rep. Jimmy Gomez was a very outspoken critic of this, emphasized to the crowd there that it’s absolutely critical that everybody respond to the census and be counted.
You’re also heading into a 2020 presidential race, and it’s going to be the first time, if my math is right, since 2000 when there’ll be a national census happening simultaneously with the presidential race.
Every other census.
So if the last race was any indication, it’s going to be a hot debate.
On many sides. How are you going to possibly manage any messaging about the census in the midst of what we can anticipate to be a very hotly-contested presidential race?
That’s where we’ll be working with Team Y&R and our other advertising partners to really sort of craft messaging that works across both sides of the debate because again we need Democrats and Republicans to respond to the census, or people who don’t vote.
You know, the census is used as a critical part of our democracy. It’s used for our political life. But the census itself is apolitical. We need people to just do the simple task of responding to the survey, either on the internet, on the phone or on paper or when someone knocks on their door, they need to be counted so that their representation is accurate.
I think it’s going to be a challenge. You’re right, I think one thing we saw in the 2016 election in particular was a very challenging social media environment. We know that from our friends in Australia when they had some hiccups in their census a couple of years ago, social media was an issue for them. So that’s one of the areas that we’ll be doing a lot of focus on to make sure that we can try to get accurate information about the census out when there may be some folks out there that are spreading misinformation or, don’t want to use the [phrase] “fake news,” but we want to make sure that the public is armed with good information about the census so they can make a good decision about their participation.
Are you worried that there could be a tweet from President Trump that doesn’t match the bureau’s messaging about the 2020 census?
I’m not too concerned about a tweet from the president in that regard, but I’m concerned about tweets from anybody that somehow, you know, if it gets enough traction that is giving the public bad information about the census. We want to make sure that people know that it’s safe and secure to answer the census and that it’s important that they answer the census. And that’s the message we want out there. We don’t want messages about how the data might get used for nefarious purposes because the data won’t be used for nefarious purposes. So I think it’s critical that, and we can’t really spread that message by ourselves. We need lots of folks out there with trusted voices in the local community, other national organizations that people trust, sort of spreading that message to ensure that the public knows that it’s safe to respond to the census.
I mean, the laws are on the books, Title 13 is on the books. The Constitution has a mandate there. But you’re asking the public, essentially, trust us. I’ve already heard from a recent Census Bureau meeting of the National Advisory Committee, people saying that they’ve served [in] local partnership roles before, as community leaders who kind of serve as a surrogate for the Census Bureau or advocates and say “Let’s get counted. Let’s participate.” And some people have already raised concerns about putting their reputations on the line, not sure how, for example, the citizenship legal fight turns out, as one example of their concerns.
I’ve heard some talk like that myself. I think there’s a lot of things said in the heat of a debate that folks might not really intend to follow up on. You know I think the example of Rep. Gomez is a perfect one. You know he’s been a very outspoken critic of this. Many of his constituents are are folks who have the concerns about the citizenship question, but his message is going to be that folks need to ensure that they’re counted in the census. We’ve been working with lots of partners around the country. You know, obviously we hear lots of concern about the citizenship question, but at the end of the day, they all say that they’re here to help the Census Bureau make sure that everybody is counted so that this important, constitutionally-mandated activity gets done and we get a complete and accurate census. So I think that’s, you know, for every person who is having some doubts, there’s several other people who are lining up to help us.
The Washington Post reported that in January 2018, this past January, that Census Bureau staff were told that noncitizens would not be hired as census workers for 2020. The public information office has told me that the Census Bureau is essentially keeping all options open. And historically, there have been exemptions asked in the past for special cases where noncitizens could [provide] language or cultural skills that citizens couldn’t provide. Can you confirm whether or not Census Bureau staff were told that noncitizens would not be hired?
So I think there is a law on the books that has restrictions about our ability to hire noncitizens. The Census Bureau is going to try to the best of its ability to make sure that we have people with appropriate language and cultural skills on the ground especially for our non-response follow-up operations when people are knocking on doors. And we’re going to explore all avenues to ensure that that was done. I think there were some staff that misinterpreted something that was said in a meeting about the laws on the books, and there might have been a reaction to that. But you know, just like [the Census Bureau’s public information office] said, we are going to be exploring every option. We need to get a complete and accurate census, and we will do everything we can to ensure that.
In May, the commerce secretary told members of the Senate that a candidate to be your successor as a permanent director was being processed by the White House. What is the status of that? Do you know who this person is? What is the timeline for an announcement of your successor?
So I’ve heard that too. I’m not a part of that process. So we’re yet to hear that the White House has made a nomination. So I’m eager to hear that as well, maybe even more eager to hear than you. And so we look forward to working with the nominee to prep them for their confirmation hearing and that sort of thing. But I think it’s important, you know, in the meantime, I think the census is in good hands. Like I said before we have a great team that’s working on the 2020 and all our other activities. Everything’s proceeding towards the census as planned, and I think we’ll be ready.
Just to confirm then, whatever person Secretary Ross was referring to, you don’t know the identity of that person?
I do not know. No. They keep that pretty quiet.
Let me just ask if you could help explain, you know, there’s a lot at stake, for someone’s daily life, how it applies to them. What is at stake? I think apportionment could sound to some people very lofty. If they’re nowhere near the Beltway, maybe they could care less, rightly or wrongly. But for their daily lives, how could a bad census count affect people’s daily lives?
Well, absolutely. So, federal funding on a number of programs is determined by census counts and so whether it’s funding for streets or for schools or for health care, decisions throughout the federal government are made based on the population of the local communities that people live in. So if you’re not counted, your local community won’t get its share of federal dollars. But I can also tell you that it’s not just federal agencies that plan with census data. We’ve spoken with dozens of companies that do planning on store location, hiring decisions, where to locate facilities, based on Census Bureau data. And if they don’t have accurate data, they won’t be able to make those decisions in a well-informed way. It may in fact affect their bottom line, but it also affects the customers that they serve, the employees they might hire. So from a local community perspective, having accurate data about your community is critical for a whole host of folks who use these data both in the private and public sectors. And so, if you’re not counted. then those decisions will be less than optimal.
Thank you for your time, Director Jarmin.