Politics & Government

Fact check: Meadows wrongly claims Obama removed census citizenship question in 2010

Corrected on April 9. See story for details.

The fate of the Trump administration’s census citizenship question rests in the hands of the Supreme Court, but debate over the issue has been swirling in Congress.

During Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ March 14 testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. and a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, said asking about citizenship is nothing out of the ordinary.

“The previous administration under President Barack Obama really was the first time that we didn’t ask a citizen-type question,” Meadows said in a question to Ross. “For the first time in a century, a citizenship question was not included in 2010.”

Meadows, who represents North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, which includes the state’s westernmost counties, made the same claim at an earlier point in the testimony, saying citizenship questions were a staple of censuses “prior to 2010, when President Obama decided not to include a citizenship question on the census.”

But Meadows’ statements muddle the facts because the citizenship question did not disappear entirely during the Obama years.

Here’s what Meadows got wrong.

Has a citizenship question been asked before?

The answer is complicated.

The census has been administered every decade since 1790 to get a national population count used for determining the distribution of seats in Congress. The 1790 census asked for the name of the head of the family and the number of people in each household, including slaves.

According to a history published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2009, a question asking about citizenship status first showed up in 1820 and 1830. It was then asked of males ages 21 and older in 1870, and has appeared as a general question every decade since 1890, with the exception of 1960, when it was removed for unexplained reasons.

What’s unique about the Trump administration’s proposal is that the question would be asked of all U.S. households.

The last time the Census Bureau came close to asking every household about citizenship status was in 1950.

That year, census workers knocked on doors to fill out the census by interviewing the residents of American households. They jotted down where each person was born and, in a follow-up question for those born outside the U.S., asked, “If foreign born — is he naturalized?”

But because citizenship was the subject of a follow-up question, not every U.S. household was asked about it, said D. Sunshine Hillygus, professor of political science at Duke University and a former member of the Census Scientific Advisory Committee.

“Census workers asked about citizenship as a follow-up question only to those households who reported someone was born outside the United States,” she said.

A decade later, the 1960 census asked about place of birth but not about citizenship. Then, beginning in 1970, the Census Bureau started distributing two different questionnaires: a short form sent to most households and a long form sent to about 1 in 6 households. Only the long form asked about citizenship.

In 2000, for example, respondents who got the long-form questionnaire were asked, “Is this person a CITIZEN of the United States?” But those who received the short form were only asked for the basics, such as name, date of birth, sex, and race.

What did Obama change in 2010?

The 2010 census ditched the long form, using only a 10-question short-form questionnaire that did not ask about citizenship.

That’s because the Census Bureau had also started collecting demographic and socioeconomic information through the American Community Survey, or ACS, which is sent every year to approximately 3.5 million households and does inquire about citizenship status.

Meadows’ spokesman Ben Williamson said the congressman “was talking about the first time the decennial census was without a citizenship question on either the long form or short form.”

But Meadows’ claim that 2010 was “the first time that we didn’t ask a citizen-type question” gets the history wrong, since the Census Bureau asked about citizenship that year via the ACS, which effectively replaced the long form and was sent to a sample of households.

(The ACS is sent to a smaller sample of American households than the long-form census of decades past. A previous version of this article said incorrectly the ACS is sent to a similar number of households.)

“The Census Bureau has long measured citizenship within the U.S. population (including in the Obama administration), but not as part of the decennial census of all U.S. households,” Hillygus wrote in an email to PolitiFact North Carolina. “So, the proposed citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census is a new addition to the census of all American households.”

“We already have access to quality data on our citizens and non-citizens alike through the ACS,” added Terry Ao Minnis, director of census and voting programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a legal and civil rights group. “In 2010, a citizenship question was asked on the ACS.”

It has been asked every year since.

Our ruling

Meadows said, “The previous administration under President Barack Obama really was the first time that we didn’t ask a citizenship-type question … for the first time in a century, a citizenship question was not included in 2010.”

(A previous version of this fact-check incorrectly said "Walker" instead of "Meadows" in the above paragraph.)

That’s factually inaccurate. A citizenship question has not been asked of all U.S. households since 1950, when it was a follow-up for foreign-born respondents. In 2010, the Census Bureau sent a citizenship question to approximately 3.5 million households through the ACS.

We rate this statement False.

This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide. To offer ideas for fact checks, email factcheck@newsobserver.com.

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