WASHINGTON — Census data shapes almost every corner of public life — from the amount of federal money funneled to school lunch programs, new bus routes and rural health clinics to the number of congressional seats allocated to a state.
As the country barrels toward the 2020 census, the Supreme Court must decide if the upcoming decennial census can include a question left unasked for over seven decades: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”
The question, the constitutionality of which was debated before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, could have sizeable consequences for states’ federal funding and political representation across the country, census experts said. North Carolina is one of the states challenging the Trump administration in the case.
The U.S. Constitution stipulates that each decade the government must count every person in the country, regardless of citizenship status. A question about a respondent’s citizenship has been asked in the past, but in recent decades has been asked of only a small sample.
Beth Lynk, director of the Census Counts Campaign for the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights , is concerned that adding a citizenship question, simple as it may sound, would undermine a fair and accurate census count. Noncitizens would be discouraged from participating based on a fear that they would be identified and possibly deported, she said.
“When communities don’t receive their fair share of political representation, that undermines their ability to live a safe, healthy and equitable life,” Lynk said. “The census has to be fair and it has to be accurate. Otherwise, it subverts what our very democracy stands for.”
The road to the highest court
Supreme Court justices fired queries at government officials and civil rights attorneys at Tuesday’s oral arguments in the case, Department of Commerce v. New York.
Last year, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced his plan to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, despite recommendations  from the Census Bureau not to add the question.
Research by the bureau indicated a high probability of error if the census included a citizenship question, a Census Bureau memo stated . And preliminary tests  of the question revealed it would likely result in inaccurate data.
According to the Census Bureau, the addition of the question could result in an undercount of 6.5 million  or more people. Half a dozen former Census Bureau directors opposed the question.
Civil rights advocates said census participants, particularly immigrants and communities of color, would fear giving their personal citizenship status to the government and elect not to participate.
“I don’t think the potential negative impact can be overstated,” said Sundrop Carter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, a group of organizations advocating for immigrants, migrants and refugees.
In her eyes, the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies have already “isolated and stigmatized” immigrants and communities of color to the point that many feel targeted. This culture has direct repercussions on the integrity of the census, she said.
“If the question moves forward and ends up actually showing up on the 2020 census, lots of communities are going to feel uncertain about filling out the census and that question in particular because of the political climate and rhetoric from this administration,” Carter said.
Matthew Tragesser, who works for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization working to severely restrict immigration, is not convinced that the addition of a citizenship question would have a chilling effect on undocumented U.S. residents.
“The census surveys are conducted anonymously, and federal law protects the confidentiality of respondents,” he said.
But John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice  and chair on the Census Advisory Committee, said the fear held by some immigrants is justified, especially considering instances when the U.S. government has discriminated against immigrants and communities of color.
“It is understandable that people are going to be fearful of what the government’s agencies’ actual intent is,” Yang said.
The lawsuit now before the Supreme Court merged a flurry of lawsuits filed since Ross’ decision to override the Census Bureau’s recommendations and add the citizenship question to the census. The state of New York was joined by 16 states, including North Carolina, in filing the first lawsuit against the administration.
In a statement issued earlier this month to explain North Carolina’s participation in the case , North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said the citizenship question would undermine the accuracy of the census:
When North Carolinians pay their federal taxes this month, they appropriately expect that they’ll see a fair share of their dollars spent in North Carolina. An accurate census would do just that – it would make sure that North Carolina’s roads and schools are funded at the level that corresponds with the number of people living here. It also would ensure that we get all the Representatives we are entitled to. A census should not be political, and that’s why I’m fighting this effort.”
Federal district courts in California, Maryland and New York have ruled that Ross did not legally implement the question and therefore the citizenship question cannot be included.
Losing a seat at the table
The government uses population data calculated by the census to draw states’ congressional districts and determine the appropriate number of representatives they should have.
According to Election Data Services , 12 states might lose a congressional seat if a census undercount occurs. One less seat means less sway in Washington.
The federal government also distributes about $880 billion  to local, state and tribal governments based on census data.
For every one percent of the population uncounted in the last census, 37 states across the country lost federal funding, according to a report by the George Washington Institute for Public Policy . The median loss per person left uncounted in the 2010 Census in these states was $1,091.
“If you have an undercount in a community then that [entire] community won’t get those resources,” Yang said. “Here we’re not just talking about immigrants, because immigrants are part of every single community. Even citizens are going to get less resources in these regions because people in their community are missed.”
Camille Erickson is a reporter with the Medill News Service and the Newsroom network , of which Policy Watch is a member. Rob Schofield also contributed to this story.