A pair of Democrats — U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) — are seeking answers from the U.S. Census Bureau on the omission of questions from major 2020 federal surveys on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In a letter dated May 22, the senators call on outgoing U.S. Census Bureau director John Thompson to explain the decision to exclude questions from a report outlining to Congress the templates for the 2020 U.S. Census and American Community Survey.
“As you have stated in the past, complete Census data is critical ‘to meet a wide range of federal needs—from providing apportionment and redistricting data as part of our representative democracy, to helping distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds annually,’” the senators write. “This is why it is critical that the Census Bureau’s process to include subjects to fairly and accurately count all Americans is impartial and free from undue interference.”
In March, the Census Bureau at first included in a report detailing 2020 Census plans an appendix note that questions allowing responders to identify their sexual orientation and gender identity were being considered. However, the agency immediately retracted that report and removed the note in a subsequent version of report, which seemed to indicate a final decision on LGBT questions wouldn’t be included in the federal surveys. LGBT groups responded that the Trump administration had “erased” LGBT people.
At the time, Thompson said in a blog post the omission was the result of “no federal data need” to include the questions, citing “a clear statutory or regulatory need for data collection.”
Detailing the multi-year process by which decisions on questions were made, Thompson wrote the initial plan for the surveys was set forth in an initial 2015 report. Although he acknowledged in 2016 members of Congress sought to include LGBT questions, it wasn’t clear whether the decision to omit them came during the Obama or Trump administrations.
According to Harris and Carper, the Obama administration “had considered adding SOGI as a subject to the 2020 Census and ACS” as result of U.S. agencies making the request, but the federal government changed course when President Trump came into office.
“On March 7, 2017…DOJ sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce rescinding its request to include SOGI,” the senators write. “Specifically, DOJ stated that ‘it was unable to reaffirm its request of November 4, 2016.’ As a result, the Census Bureau halted its evaluation of whether SOGI should be included in the 2020 Census and ACS, despite DOJ’s previously clearly articulated need in November. These communications raise concerns about the role of the DOJ and its influence on government data collection.”
The letter seeks — by a June 19 deadline — information on 1) All communications related to the addition of SOGI as a new subject to the 2020 Census and the American Community Survey; 2) An explanation of the Census Bureau’s process to accept and review requests from federal agencies for survey questions; 3) An explanation of the Census Bureau’s process to accept and review requests from Congress; and 4) An explanation of the Census Bureau’s threshold for subject inclusion in the surveys.
The Washington Blade has placed a request seeking comment with the U.S. Census Bureau on the senators’ letter.