“Why can’t we just ask the question the way it was asked for 50 years before the Obama administration yanked it out of there? We’ve been asking questions like this — the American Community Survey every fifth year asks a similar question. And think of all the questions that nobody complains are included in our U.S. Census every 10 years that include a far, far, far smaller number of Americans or, I would argue, are much more intrusive, invasive and expansive. We’re asking people how many toilets in your house, and you don’t want to know who’s using them? It’s absolutely ridiculous, and this is why the president is fighting for its inclusion.”
— White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, in an interview on “Fox and Friends,” July 9, 2019
Conway, a seasoned pollster, got a lot wrong in this defense of President Trump’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
The Supreme Court last month blocked administration officials from adding the question to the census form. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the court that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — who oversees the Census Bureau and approved the citizenship question — violated a federal law that required him to disclose the real reason for the change. (For more on that, read our previous fact checks here and here.)
At first, the Trump administration responded to the court decision by dropping its plans. Then the Commerce and Justice departments reversed course and began exploring whether they could insert the citizenship question while complying with Roberts’s ruling.
On “Fox and Friends,” Conway was appealing to the court of public opinion. If the census asks about your toilets, why can’t it ask about your citizenship status?
We’re wading into three different surveys, all of them from the Census Bureau.
- The first is the decennial census. The Constitution mandates a population count every 10 years, so the Census Bureau attempts to poll all U.S. households once per decade. The decennial census included a citizenship question from 1890 to 1950. A citizenship question of some kind also appeared in 1820, 1830 and 1870, as the Pew Research Center explained. Trump wants it back for the 2020 Census.
- From 1960 to 2000, census officials sent a detailed survey as a supplement to the more bare-bones decennial questionnaire. The supplemental survey was sent to 1 in 6 households, and it included a citizenship question.
- In 2005, the Census Bureau rolled out the American Community Survey (ACS). This is also a long-form questionnaire and also includes a citizenship question. It goes out yearly to 3.5 million households, or 1 in 38.
“Why can’t we just ask the question the way it was asked for 50 years before the Obama administration yanked it out of there? … The American Community Survey every fifth year asks a similar question.”
President Barack Obama’s administration did not remove the citizenship question from the 2010 Census, so this claim from Conway is unfounded. Her 50-year timeline is sketchy as well, as is her claim that the ACS asks about citizenship every five years.
What actually happened: The Census Bureau discontinued its long-form supplement after sending it out in 2000. As we’ve noted, that separate survey included a citizenship question.
Obama was in office when the next decennial census rolled around, in 2010. But the Census Bureau had switched over to the ACS in 2005 — before Obama took office. Furthermore, the 2010 ACS included a citizenship question. So there was no yanking on Obama’s part. (The Census Bureau began to design the ACS in 1994.)
Conway mentioned the way the citizenship question “was asked for 50 years.” Perhaps she meant the long form used from 1960 to 2000, though that was 40 years. Otherwise, the math makes no sense. The census citizenship question, as we’ve noted, first appeared in some form in 1820. It appeared continually from 1890 to 1950 on the census form. And it has appeared in the ACS since 2005, which covers all of Obama’s time in office.
According to Conway, the ACS asks about citizenship “every fifth year.” The questionnaires are all archived online, and the citizenship question appears in every one. As the Justice Department wrote in a filing to the Supreme Court, citizenship questions “have been part of the ACS every year since its inception in 2005.”
Conway, the White House press office and the Census Bureau did not respond to our questions.
It wasn’t the first time a guest on “Fox and Friends” claimed that the Obama administration cut the citizenship question in 2010. The day before Conway’s appearance, another guest made the same claim.
“Think of all the questions that nobody complains are included in our U.S. Census every 10 years that include a far, far, far smaller number of Americans or, I would argue, are much more intrusive, invasive and expansive. We’re asking people how many toilets in your house, and you don’t want to know who’s using them?”
This is a catchy argument, but it’s misleading.
From 1960 to 2000, the long-form census supplement asked a version of this question: “Do you have COMPLETE plumbing facilities in this house, apartment, or mobile home; that is, 1) hot and cold piped water, 2) a flush toilet, and 3) a bathtub or shower?” In 2000, respondents were asked to check one of two boxes: “yes, have all three facilities” or “no.” (In 1970, the flush toilet question appeared by itself.)
Because it appeared on the supplemental survey, only 1 in 6 households were asked about flushing toilets and other plumbing. Government officials use data on plumbing access to manage housing subsidies and other programs.
The ACS also included question on flushing toilets from 2005 to 2015. But that survey is sent to a smaller subset of households, 1 in 38.
The Census Bureau in 2014 said it was weighing whether to cut some questions on commuting habits, income, mental disability and household plumbing from the ACS, partly in response to criticism that they were too nosy. Since 2016, the ACS survey has not included a toilet question, though it still asks about other forms of plumbing.
“Plumbing data are used by federal agencies to allocate federal housing subsidies, identify poor-quality housing and identify candidates for home repair or other assistance,” according to the Pew Research Center. “The data also help public health officials identify areas with potential ground water contamination or waterborne diseases. The plumbing questions were first asked on the 1940 Census. [Census Bureau official Gary] Chappell acknowledged that the plumbing questions may have been more useful in earlier eras, when more homes lacked basic sanitation facilities. However, these estimates may still be important in some rural areas and on American Indian lands.”
Conway’s comparison is misleading because the ACS stopped asking about toilets after 2015 — but it continues to ask about citizenship.
The Pinocchio Test
Let’s recap: The Obama administration did not yank the citizenship question from the 2010 Census. Conway’s 50-year timeline doesn’t add up. The ACS asks about citizenship every year, not every five years. The supplemental surveys that asked about toilets also asked about citizenship. The ACS no longer asks about toilets, but still asks about citizenship.
These flushable claims get Four Pinocchios.
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