Gehrke: Here’s how that citizenship question on the 2020 census could impact Utah and our communities

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It might seem obscure and distant, but whether the U.S. Supreme Court allows a question about a person’s citizenship on the 2020 census could have a direct impact on Utah schools, roads and a host of services in communities around our state.

For close to 70 years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the citizenship question has not been included in the count that takes place every 10 years. The bureau’s own statisticians estimate that including it would mean 6.5 million people living in our country would not be counted.

Despite the warnings that the question would make the census less accurate, not more accurate, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross chose to include it anyway.

The Trump administration has argued that the information is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, even though the question has never been asked in the 50 years the act has been on the books.

The real reason appears to be political. Blue states have larger immigrant populations, so suppressing the count in those areas could shift a few congressional seats and, correspondingly, electoral votes.

And it fits in with the President Donald Trump’s track record of hostile and punitive measures, not just against undocumented immigrants, but all immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and the children of those who are undocumented.

The Supreme Court heard New York’s challenge to the citizenship question Tuesday, with the four liberal justices hammering the Trump administration’s lawyer, while the five conservative justices who make up the majority appeared willing to let the question go ahead.

It’s an unfortunate prospect and Utah communities could suffer as a result.

I don’t mean suffer politically — Utah is not going to lose a congressional seat because of the undercount like states such as California, New York or Texas could.

I mean in more tangible ways. That’s because the census is also the basis for the distribution of some $880 billion in federal funds for things like roads, schools, health care subsidies, housing assistance, heating aid and on and on.

Closer to home, the population count also drives sales tax allocations, state road funding and other programs.

And it’s the diverse communities in the state that are most likely to be adversely impacted, according to Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. While it is illegal for the government to share Census Bureau information with, say, immigration enforcement, given the hostility from the administration it makes sense that undocumented residents might be anxious.

In reality, though, it’s not just those who are undocumented who might go uncounted.

“There are households where one member, maybe a dad, is undocumented and everyone else is either documented or born in America, but there is a fear for that one family member, with all the images of family separations and all those draconian things being done at the border,” she said.

In those instances, entire households could go uncounted. Multiply that over the large number of similar households or other circumstances in our most diverse cities and those already-underserved communities are even more marginalized.

“It’s a much bigger issue where we have concentrations of gathering places or gateway communities for new Americans — Salt Lake City, West Valley City, Kearns, Copperton, the west side of Salt Lake County and Ogden,” Perlich said. “You can look throughout the state and find all these communities where we have hundreds of different ethnic groups.”

These are the people who are fueling Utah’s population growth, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Gardner Institute, co-authored by Perlich. The study found that, over a 50-year period from 2015 to 2065, half the population growth in the state will come from minority populations, including an estimated 850,000 new Hispanics.

These people need to be counted, both legally — the Constitution calls for a count of “the number of persons in each state” — and demographically, so that we know who is living here, what services are needed and how to make the best policy to shape our future.

The Utah Legislature could have helped with that mission but refused to fund any outreach to encourage people to participate in the 2020 census. Salt Lake City will hire a census outreach coordinator this year, and the county also is committing resources to encourage residents to complete the census forms.

Beyond that, it will fall to the rest of us, in schools and churches and civic groups, to come together as a community to make sure our community is counted.