Comments from Richard Besser, MD, on Proposed Information Collection on 2020 Census

    • August 6, 2018

The following comments were submitted by Richard Besser, MD, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) President and CEO, in response to the June 8, 2018 notice in the Federal Register requesting comments on the 2020 Census proposed information collection.

RWJF is the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated to improving health and health care in the United States. Since 1972, we have worked with public and private sector partners to advance the science of disease prevention and health promotion, train the next generation of health leaders, and support the development and implementation of policies and programs to foster better health across the country, including high-quality health care coverage for all. We are working alongside others to build a national Culture of Health that provides everyone in America a fair and just opportunity for health and well-being.

Accurate and reliable census data are critical to building a healthier America. For example, public health practitioners and scientists use census data to estimate the prevalence of disease and calculate birth and death rates.1 This information is used to identify health priorities and target programs and other interventions. The ability to analyze trends over time and differences between subpopulations is essential for both public health research and surveillance. Inaccurate data can result in a misallocation of resources.

Many of the programs that RWJF supports, including the County Health Rankings and the 500 Cities project, use Census data to provide communities throughout the country information that helps guide their decision-making. These data are the cornerstone of public health practice as they facilitate the identification of public health problems and the planning and implementation of programs designed to improve health.

Needless to say, the importance of accurate census data extends far beyond public health to virtually all public and private sector activity, including fields such as housing, education, transportation and infrastructure, early child care support, and nutritional supports. Census data are also used by private industry to determine the amount and location of future investments.2

The Census Bureau, with good reason, has a longstanding practice of avoiding  questions about potentially sensitive topics such as taxes, religion, and citizenship. This is to maximize participation and data quality. And while every Census has some degree of underreporting, we believe that the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census questionnaire will result in a significantly less accurate population count. In particular, a citizenship question may lead to an undercount in vulnerable communities, which could have implications for health and well-being.

A citizenship question will likely result in a significant reduction in participation, which will affect data quality. This concern is supported by evidence that finds growing distrust of the government in immigrant and other hard-to-count communities that may limit their desire to complete the Census.3 Furthermore, the Census Bureau’s own research in 2017 found unprecedented concerns among immigrants, and those living with immigrants, about responding to census takers’ questions, due to fear that the information might be shared with other government agencies and used against them or their loved ones.4 RWJF is not alone in having these concerns. It is widely believed by census experts from both parties, including former Commerce Department Secretaries5 and Census Bureau Directors6, and multiple mayors7 that a citizenship question will depress enumeration. The concern around the potential negative impact of the inclusion of a citizenship question is also shared by the Census Scientific Advisory Committee.8 Since at least 1980, it’s been the public position of the Census Bureau that a citizenship question would  jeopardize the integrity of the population count.9

Given the critical importance of accurate census data, we request that the Census Bureau remove the citizenship question from the 2020 Census. We also ask that the Census Bureau expedite its communications plans, include messages in multiple languages that convey the importance of filling out the census, and reinforce its pledge to uphold the confidentiality provisions already in law.

RWJF is committed to using our resources to help the most vulnerable improve their health and well-being. We look forward to working with U.S. Census Bureau and other partners to build the healthiest nation possible.


About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

For more than 40 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve the health and health care of all Americans. We are striving to build a national culture of health that will enable all Americans to live longer, healthier lives now and for generations to come. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter at or on Facebook at


1. Baumgaertner, E. (2018, February 14). A Citizenship Question On The Census May Be Bad For Your Health. The New York Times.

2. Ready Nation (n.d.). Data For A Strong Economy. Council for Strong America. Washington, DC.

3. Jones, J.M. Newport, F., Saad, L. (2017, November 1) How Americans Perceive Government in 2017. Gallup.

4. Census Bureau (2017, September 20). Memorandum For Associate Director For Research And Methodology. Census Bureau, Washington, DC.

5. Pritzker, P., Gutierrez, C. (2018, April 4). U.S. Census Is Not About Citizenship. Bloomberg.

6. Barbara, V.P., Farnsworth Riche, M., Prewitt, K., Murdock, S. H., Groves, R. M., Thompson, J. (2018, January 26). Letter to Secretary of Commerce, the Honorable Wilbur Ross, Washington Post.

7. United States Conference of Mayors (2018, February 6).

8. Wines, M. (2018, March 30). Census Bureau’s Own Expert Panel Rebukes Decision To Add Citizenship Question. The New York Times.

9. United States District Court Southern District of New York. (2018, February 26).

Media Contacts

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Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (609) 627-5937