What Is Census Data Really Used For, And What Can Be Shared?

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What Is Census Data Really Used For, And What Can Be Shared?
The Trump administration was interested in adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, but how much of that data could have been legally shared?
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The Trump administration officially dropped its efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census on Tuesday. 

"They spend billions of dollars on the census and you're not allowed to ask, you don't knock on doors of houses, check houses you go through all this detail and you're not allowed to ask whether or not somebody is a citizen? So you can ask other things but you can't ask whether or not somebody is a citizen?" President Donald Trump had said Monday.

The addition had been blocked multiple times in federal court and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it couldn't be included. 

At issue was whether the question would violate the constitutional rights of immigrants and certain people of color. The federal government had said it would've helped the Justice Department better enforce the Voting Rights Act. And critics had argued that the question would've curbed census participation by those groups, hurting the report's accuracy.    

So what were the reasons behind the Trump administration's interest in knowing whether respondents are U.S. citizens or not? 

First, it's important to understand how census data is utilized. In general, responses can only be used to produce statistics that determine how federal funds are spent, political representation in Congress and the size of the country's population.

But here's what it can't be used for: disclosing or publishing any identifying information. By law, according to the bureau, census responses can't be used against a person by a federal agency or court system. 

That's because the U.S. Census Bureau abides by strict confidentiality rules that bar it from sharing identifying information -- even with other government agencies such as the FBI and ICE. In the bureau's own words, it's "one of the strongest confidentiality guarantees in the federal government." Specifically, identifiable survey answers can't be released until 72 years after collection. 

Still, immigration advocacy groups point out that undocumented immigrants, along with citizens and legal residents, have expressed concerns that their personal data could be used for deportation efforts. 

A recent task force study commissioned by the Census Bureau acknowledges that worry. It notes that the Trump administration's interest in a citizenship question is "likely to have profound consequences for public trust in the Census Bureau." 

That same research also points out that public concern about census confidentiality has generally been declining over the past several decades. 

Additional reporting from Newsy affiliate CNN.