Ignorance is a Lousy Public Policy Strategy

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Yes, this is (part of) America.  

Some public policy trends jump out at you (the opioid crisis, for instance, or the impact of social media on the country’s coarsening public conversation). Others are too subtle for easy detection, which means that major shifts go unnoticed until it’s too late to do anything about them.

And, sometimes they are right in front of you. Like one of those optical illusions of a duck-rabbit mutant, it just takes squinting your eyes a bit to see.

Such is the case with two seemingly unrelated stories in Wednesday’s Washington Post that have far more in common than you might think. The first is a report about Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ previously undisclosed efforts to push a citizenship question into the 2020 Census; the second is an opinion piece by three leading philanthropists decrying the lack of charitable support for Puerto Rico in the wake of last year’s devastating Hurricane Maria.

As the op-ed notes, last fall’s storm took more than a thousand lives and caused “the longest blackout on our country’s history.” The piece highlights the shameful reality that, in addition to the inadequate government response to the disaster, the philanthropic community has not stepped up:

Yet corporate and foundation support of Puerto Rico in 2017 stood at only $62 million, according to data collected from the Foundation Center and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Compare that with the $341 million in support after Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas, and the $128 million after Hurricane Irma, which badly damaged Florida. Thanks to these investments, as well as a much more robust government response, Texas and Florida were back on their feet in a matter of weeks. Puerto Rico, however, continues to struggle to meet basic needs 10 months after the storm.

Why the lack of support for the U.S. citizens who call Puerto Rico home? The op-ed argues that “[f] or many mainland U.S. foundations, Puerto Rico somehow isn’t “American” enough for regional or local funding.”

But it’s not just foundations – and it’s not just a matter of not considering Puerto Rico “American” enough. Many Americans don’t even think Puerto Rico is American at all.

A 2017 survey by Morning Consult found that nearly half of Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.. It’s no wonder that support for aid to Puerto Rico is not as high as that for U.S. states affected by natural disasters: Americans are notoriously skeptical of foreign aid. If you think that Puerto Rico is no different than, say, Haiti, or Sri Lanka, or Rwanda, well….

Surely, part of the issue is old-fashioned prejudice: to some Americans, Puerto Ricans don’t look like what an American should look like. But it’s far more than that: the Morning Consult survey found that the  percentage of young people who don’t think  Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. is higher than the rate among older Americans. Since younger Americans typically have a more expansive view of what it means to be an American, than their ignorance about Puerto Rico’s Americanness is likely a function of ignorance more than racism.

And it’s a function of the fact that civics is increasingly left out of the grade school curriculum. As the National Education Association notes:

Until the 1960s, it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government. But civics offerings were slashed as the curriculum narrowed over the ensuing decades, and lost further ground to “core subjects” under the NCLB-era standardized testing regime.

Consequently, the NEA points out, only 25 percent of U.S. students reach the “proficient” standard on the NAEP Civics Assessment.

When Americans view Puerto Ricans as not their fellow countryfolk but as foreigners, and donate less (and place less pressure on their elected representatives to help), it’s clear that ignorance of basic civic facts has real-world consequences.

Which brings us to that other article, about the Commerce Department’s efforts to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. The big news in the story is the revelation that Secretary Ross apparently misled Congress about his involvement in pushing for the question. The issue is highly controversial because opponents view the question as an attempt by the Trump administration to reduce the Census count in places with large immigrant populations, as immigrants would be less likely to participate for fear a visit from ICE. This, in turn, could reduce population numbers in blue states, affecting everything from reapportionment of Congressional seats to federal funding formulas.

Whatever the arguments for or against a citizenship question, there can be little doubt that such a question will depress participation in the Census. Which means that the 2020 Census would not provide a complete and accurate accounting of the nation’s population and demographics.

If you think it’s bad that millions of Americans don’t know who their fellow citizens are, it’s many times worse if the government doesn’t understand. Actively pushing to make the Census less accurate is the bureaucratic equivalent of sleeping through civics class – but much, much worse. It’s ignorance on an epic scale.  And it would make effective policymaking extremely difficult.

Unfortunately, it’s part of a larger trend towards making ignorance great again. Whether it’s labeling all media “fake news,” shooting up a restaurant due to demonstrably false assertions (such as notion that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring from the basement of a pizzeria) or sabotaging the Census to achieve political ends, there is a move afoot to make the U.S. a fact-free society.

Ironically, those who proclaim their patriotism the loudest are the very ones who are pushing this agenda and supporting moves like the Census citizenship question. But loving your country requires knowing it, too. You can be a patriot. Or you can be willfully ignorant. You can’t be both.