In March 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that the Justice department intended to include a new citizenship question on the 2020 US Census. This past November, a New York court took on the legality of the citizenship question following a suit by a number of plaintiffs, including 18 states. Plaintiffs argued that asking “are you a citizen?” would increase the likelihood of non-responses by those most threatened by disclosing non-citizen status, to say little of fears that the inclusion of a citizenship question would be used to directly target non-citizens. Then, on February 15, 2019, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, following the Trump administration’s request for a immediate review after the New York court ruled against plans to include the question. Escalating the Census to the Supreme Court magnifies a fundamental question shaping the creation of such calculations, namely, who are we counting? And why?
In the original United States Census, taken in 1790, only 5 demographic categories were deemed, for lack of better terminology, “countable”. These categories included three types of white people (men under 16, men age 16 or older, and women), “other free persons”, and slaves. Under the oversight of Thomas Jefferson, US marshals counted the residents of households in 13 states and in three additional districts and the Southwest Territory. Since then, the Census occurs every 10 years as the primary counting project within the US, providing data used to not only to calculate the number of congressional seats per state but to allocate federal dollars for roads, school lunches, health centers, and more.
Since the effects of the Census are so broad, gaps between the calculated state or county population and the actual number of residents, a problem known as an “undercount,” could fundamentally skew the data collected in 2020. While the addition of a citizenship question raises the possibility of an undercount in states with high undocumented populations (like California), other groups identify the widespread lack of planning and funding as potentially impacting the count of many minority and hard-to-reach groups. Beyond the undercount problem, additional proposed changes in how the Census counts overseas military personnel and those currently incarcerated may shift how a number of resources are distributed nationally.
But improving accuracy requires more than reducing the undercount or determining whether or not to count deployed soldiers as residing in their hometowns. Though we no longer rely on the original five Census categories, the inherent epistemological issues of classification make the Census into a project of not only enumerating, but naming and validating categories of persons. Scholars show how the use of racial categories in the Census shapes and legitimizes the use of constructs like race in medical practice, questioning whether such a move reflects increased biologization of social difference or can be a relevant tool for research into ongoing health disparities in the US. Other scholars use Census data to contrast samples with population-level data, such as in research on unequal policing practices. Thus, Census data not only structures the division of resources, but shape the kinds of categories available to researchers attempting to make sense of diversity and inequality.
In communities of health scholarship, the Census perhaps pales in significance to the Center for Disease Control’s efforts to capture health behavior data. Data sets such as the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBSS), which collects data on a number of behaviors linked to death and debility, recently added new questions on sexuality and gender identity in ten states and nine large urban school districts. This allowed for further refined population estimates of groups that have traditionally been left off the list of “countable,” or “counted,” categories. The Trevor Project reported on this data last week, noting that 1.8% of youth identified as transgender; much higher than previous estimates of 0.7%. The challenge of identifying and naming the existence of gender-diverse youth, made even more difficult in light of last year’s CDC ban on the use of “transgender” in budget and funding proposals, expresses a relationship between enumerative projects and visibility; between being counting as data, and counting as a person.
For many, the inclusion of a question on gender identity in the YRBSS represents a step forward towards acknowledging the needs of trans youth. Deb Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, commented that the “stakes are incredibly high”, noting the higher rates sexual violence and suicide experienced by transgender youth. Similarly, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) reports that this data shows how schools are “failing trans youth”. In this case, counting transgender youth creates an opportunity to prevent the ongoing marginalization of the needs of some of the nation’s most vulnerable.
Recently, public attention has been drawn not only to those who are at risk of going uncounted, but those who are uncredited with the development of the very tools used to create meaningful models of population-level data. For example, a recent publication in the Atlantic described how women employed as programmers contributed to numerous scientific counting projects, but were rarely rewarded with authorship or credit. While some programmers who worked on the project ended up returning to academia as graduate students and eventual professors, others remain perpetually footnoted, their labor erased. Uncounted.
Last month, my university sent out an online survey, asking students not to “turn your back. Insist on being counted.” Such rhetoric capitalizes on our own fears about not being counted, about being erased, which resonates with concerns about the inability to understand the needs of populations when even the magnitude of their existence remains out of sight. Living in a moment where billionaires pour their fortune into shaping political futures through data, it seems clear that ethical and epistemological uncertainties about the process of counting aren’t going anywhere soon. Without question, however, the processes of naming who and what should be counted, and an attention to who does the counting, towards what ends, inevitably shapes the meaning and impact of future data.
Paula Martin is a Phd candidate in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, where she studies gender, medicine, youth, and temporality.