Companies That Rely On Census Data Worry Citizenship Question Will Hurt Lyft and Univision are among the critics of the citizenship question the Trump administration wants on the 2020 census. The businesses say it could harm the national head count and their bottom line.

Companies That Rely On Census Data Worry Citizenship Question Will Hurt

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Here's another change the Trump administration wants - adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the matter last month, and a decision in the case is expected by summer. Some critics of a question like this on the census are people who usually stay away from politically heated issues - business leaders. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang spoke with a few of them.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Is this person a citizen of the United States? That's the question the Trump administration wants to ask next year of every person in every household in the country. But some companies are pushing back. They say that question could harm not only the 2020 census but also their bottom line.

CHRISTINE PIERCE: We don't view this as a political situation at all. We see this as one that is around sound research and good science.

LO WANG: Christine Pierce is the senior vice president of data science at Nielsen. That's the company that puts out TV ratings, which rely on census data collected by the government once a decade for the constitutionally mandated headcount. Pierce says asking about a sensitive topic like a person's citizenship status is likely to discourage some people from participating in the count.

PIERCE: If there is an undercount, that could carry through to our audience estimates and could mean that people will make decisions based on data that isn't as accurate as it should be.

LO WANG: The Trump administration says it wants citizenship data from the question to better enforce part of the Voting Rights Act. Researchers at the Census Bureau, however, recommended against the question, which they say would produce information that's less accurate and more expensive than existing government data. The issue is now before the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule by the end of June. Pierce says allowing the question to be added could risk the accuracy of census data tied to $90 billion in TV and video advertising.

PIERCE: There's just no substitute for a good census and having that count be as thorough as possible.

ANTHONY FOXX: There's nothing else like it. There is nothing else like the census.

LO WANG: Anthony Foxx served as U.S. secretary of transportation during the Obama administration. He's now the chief policy officer for Lyft. The ride-hailing app filed a friend of the court brief against the citizenship question. Lyft, Foxx says, is worried that an inaccurate census could mean that some communities may not get their fair share in federal funding for roads and public transportation over the next 10 years.

FOXX: That is a direct impact on our business because it means that those roads will end up being more clogged up, and those people will have a harder time getting around.

LO WANG: Lyft was joined in the court brief by its competitor, Uber, plus other big name brands like Levi's and Univision, where Jessica Herrera-Flanigan is executive vice president of government and corporate affairs.

JESSICA HERRERA-FLANIGAN: This data that comes out of the census is not just some bureaucratic government data that sits in a vault somewhere that no one sees. It's actually data that affects our day-to-day lives.

LO WANG: Herrera-Flanigan is concerned including the citizenship question could lead to an undercount of Latinx residents. Census Bureau research suggests the question could discourage Latinos and Latinas from responding. Still, Herrera-Flanigan says, Univision is talking up next year's census on TV shows like "Pequenos Gigantes."


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Spanish).

HERRERA-FLANIGAN: These cute kids were talking and saying, it's this. It's this. And then finally, one young man announces...


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Spanish).

HERRERA-FLANIGAN: Whatever it is, just participate. Regardless of what happens in the courts, we're going to be pushing people to know about the importance of the census and actually do it. And that's a - it's a big lift.

LO WANG: It's also tricky ground for businesses to navigate, especially after President Trump tweeted last month his support of the citizenship question, saying, quote, "the American people deserve to know who is in this country." Census Bureau official Burton Reist recently noted the bureau is running into hurdles trying to recruit businesses to promote the census.

BURTON REIST: So we had a meeting with McDonald's, but that was a year ago. And we've had a hard time getting anything to come from it.

LO WANG: An adviser to the Census Bureau, Arturo Vargas of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said business leaders have told him they're reluctant to promote a census that has become so politicized.

ARTURO VARGAS: This is now something that, even though it's such a fundamental aspect of our democracy, that they themselves are not willing to be associated with something that is so controversial now.

LO WANG: The Census Bureau says so far, they have a promotional partnership underway with Smucker's. NPR has confirmed the bureau is also in discussions with Procter & Gamble. And a spokesperson from McDonald's says after speaking with their bureau early last year, the company has not made any decisions about the 2020 census.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.


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