In July 2019, a Facebook user shared a text-based status update about the census-related “citizenship question,” which claimed that such a question had existed on the United States Census for 160 years — until President Obama outlawed it:
Like so many other status update memes before it, the text against a colorful background with no supporting evidence and no citations whatsoever accrued considerable shares. Few commenters questioned whether the claim that President Obama had eliminated “the citizenship question” from the census was true, instead simply re-sharing the unverified information to a larger audience.
The claim broadly referenced an ongoing debate about the proposed inclusion of a question pertaining to citizenship on the 2020 census:
Donald Trump’s administration proposed adding a question to the 2020 US census which would ask: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” Respondents would have five options, indicating that they were born in the US, born in a US territory, born abroad to US citizen parents, naturalized as a citizen, or not a citizen. The census is conducted every 10 years to count the people living in the US.
A census question about citizenship existed at one time:
Questions related to a person’s citizenship did once appear on the census, but historians say the phrasing and intent of those earlier questions were different — and, in any case, they were removed from the main head count after 1950 in a bid to improve the census’s accuracy. Meanwhile, social science methods have evolved to the point that high-quality citizenship data can be — and already is — collected via other Census Bureau surveys and administrative records. So the Trump administration is facing an important question: Why add a question to the census that could harm the quality and credibility of the data — and also may not be necessary?
But the post’s contention was that the Obama administration was responsible for eliminating such a question. By all accounts, that was not the case:
[A] citizenship question was on every census between 1890 and 1950, but has not been on the standard census form since then. Currently, the government gets citizenship data from the American Community Survey, which is done every year but only goes out to a small number of US households.
“This is a question that’s been included in every census since 1965,” Sanders said Tuesday, “with the exception of 2010, when it was removed.”
The short answer
This statement is inaccurate, incomplete and misleading. A quick history of the decennial survey makes that clear.
The last time a citizenship question was among the census questions for all U.S. households was in 1950. That form asked where each person was born and in a follow-up question asked, “If foreign born — Is he naturalized?”
In 1960, there was no such question about citizenship, only about place of birth.
In May 2019, NPR re-examined the question and its nuance, explaining:
A close review of that history dating back to 1820, however, leads to one conclusion: Never before has the federal government used the census to directly ask for the citizenship status of every person living in every household in the United States.
Many in the news media, including NPR, have often referred to 1950 as the last time that the Census Bureau asked all households about U.S. citizenship status. A closer look at the 1950 census, however, shows that it wasn’t a simple yes-or-no process.
In 1950, census workers asked about the birthplace of every member of each household. The question on the census worksheet was “What State (or foreign country)” was each person born in?
If the answer revealed someone had been born outside the U.S., census workers were instructed to “immediately” ask whether that person was naturalized, which would mean that the person had become a U.S. citizen.
That article goes on to note that the “citizenship question” proposed for 2020 was also quite unlike earlier iterations from 70 years before:
Unlike how the census was conducted in 1950, the citizenship question that the Trump administration wants to ask next year is direct: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” The 2020 question, if it is included on census forms, is intended to collect the citizenship status of every person living in each U.S. household, regardless of birthplace.
A myth-debunking fact sheet [PDF] from Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJS) further noted:
MYTH #6: This is simply a reinstatement of the citizenship question onto the decennial census.
This is not true. A citizenship question has not been on a census survey sent to 100% of households since 1950. That is 70 years between two decennial census surveys with a planned citizenship question. Furthermore, the citizenship question used in 1950 is different than the one proposed for the 2020 Census. Thus, this is not a reinstatement of a citizenship question on the decennial census – this is in fact a new citizenship question that has not been tested on a survey in an environment that has dramatically changed since 1950.
As an aside, President Barack Obama was not born until 1961.
Rumors — presumably based on an inaccurate and misleading March 2019 claim that a “citizenship question” was first removed from the official census in 2010 — spread once again in July 2019, with the additional detail that President Barack Obama was the one to alter it. In fact, by most accounts the last similar question appeared 70 years before the 2020, in 1950. We can say with assurance that Barack Obama in no way influenced the decision to “change the census” that year, because he had not yet been born.