By Lauren Tara LaCapra
(Reuters) - The U.S. census should include questions about criminal records to help policymakers get former convicts back into the workforce, a Republican lawmaker said on Wednesday.
Senator Mike Lee of Utah suggested the idea at a hearing about the economic impact of the Census. It may add a new layer to a political battle over what questions the U.S. Census Bureau should include on its decennial survey of U.S. residents.
"How many people are out of the labour force because of their criminal records?" Lee asked at a hearing in Washington by the Joint Economic Committee, which he chairs.
Finding the answer might help policymakers "identify what impact our laws might be having on them that ... we didn't intend," he added.
Lee's suggestion was supported by testimony from American Enterprise Institute (AEI) economist Nicholas Eberstadt, who argued that U.S. economic statistics have a gaping hole when it comes to people with criminal records.
Eberstadt, who wrote a book about male underemployment, noted that men with arrest records are more likely to be unemployed than those who have had no trouble with the law.
Although it is too late to include a question on this issue on the 2020 Census, doing so on future surveys could help the federal government formulate policies to get ex-convicts back into the labour force, Eberstadt said.
"It is an enormous blind spot and, given the realities of life in our country today, a critical and inexplicable statistical oversight," he said.
The Trump administration wants to ask respondents to next year's survey whether they are citizens. Most Republicans support the proposal, while Democrats, immigrant advocates and demographers oppose it, saying it will discourage participation which could result in undercounts that in turn could deprive some communities of funds and political representation.
The Census determines how the federal government distributes some $900 billion in aid, as well as seats in Congress.
Harvard researchers predict the citizenship question would lead to an undercount of more than 4 million Hispanic residents.
The citizenship question has been tied up in litigation since U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross first announced plans to include it in March 2018. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision soon.
Adding a new question to the Census usually requires extensive testing and consultation with lawmakers because the Census Bureau tries to balance a desire to obtain as much useful information as possible with the reality that fewer questions lead to better response rates. Adding controversial questions means people are less likely to participate.
Eberstadt also suggested asking about secular or religious affiliation, saying this could affect how lonely or happy or connected people feel towards their communities. A 1976 law governing the Census prevents compelling people to disclose information about their religious beliefs or membership.
Democrats dismissed the idea.
U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York who is vice chair of the committee and active on census issues, said it is a nonstarter.
"Proposing the citizenship question has taken us down a troubling path," she said in a statement provided to Reuters. "The idea of adding questions to the census on criminal history would take us further and further away from our goal – which is 100 percent participation in the census."
Eberstadt was one of four panelists speaking at Wednesday's hearing. Others include Andrew Reamer, a professor at George Washington University; Howard Fienberg, a lobbyist with the Insights Association; and Mallory Bateman, coordinator of the State Data Center at The University of Utah.
Other panelists emphasized the importance of Census data for businesses and the economy. Some highlighted the risk of a significant undercount in 2020.
"The Census Bureau's own research has shown there's a climate of fear," said Reamer, noting that some participants in test surveys had "run out of the room" when asked about citizenship.
(Reporting by Lauren Tara LaCapra; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, David Gregorio and Richard Chang)