This post has been updated.
President Trump announced on Thursday that he will drop efforts to get a citizenship question on the 2020 census. The news comes hours after administration officials told reporters the president was considering a hail mary attempt to add the question via executive order after being denied by the Supreme Court two weeks ago. The apparent end of Trump’s attempts to add the question to the census is big news — not just for immigration advocates, but for environmental agencies that use census data for U.S. disaster preparedness and recovery efforts.
Upon first glance, the proposed question didn’t seem to have any bearing on disaster funding. It would have asked, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” (There were multiple proposed response options but only one for “not a citizen,” which did not specify whether a person is in the U.S. legally or not.) While many disaster programs don’t consider the question of citizenship when it comes to recovery efforts, a citizenship question could have caused undocumented immigrants’ not to fill out the survey at all, leading to a census undercount in immigrant-heavy communities.
That wouldn’t have been good especially considering many of those are climate-vulnerable areas, and census data plays a vital role in determining funding levels for countless federal programs — including disaster recovery.
Faced with increasingly severe weather and natural events in a warming world, federal, state, and local agencies rely on census data to inform rigorous preparations and evacuation efforts, rapid response, and long term recovery for affected communities. According to the Census Bureau’s own website, census data is so essential to emergency preparedness and disaster recovery efforts that representatives from the agency now serve on Federal Emergency Management Agency committees.)
Emergency managers preparing for future disasters can look at demographic, socioeconomic and housing data to pinpoint what kind of resources an area needs. For example, evacuation plans, require detailed, accurate census information to identify populations without sufficient resources to evacuate. If, say, the area has a large population of Spanish speakers, the agency knows it will need to deploy more Spanish-speaking staff.
Accessing disaster recovery funding is also census-guided. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program uses data about local populations to effectively distribute and allocate funds to low-income communities. Plus, census data can help planning for future emergencies by making sure health care infrastructure and other necessary institutes and equipped and ready to handle an emergency.
Even though Trump has abandoned his plans to ask about citizenship via the census, the battle over the issue isn’t necessarily over. Trump said he is “not backing down” from efforts to count the number of citizens and non-citizens in the U.S. via other means.