Keeping Count – Updating the Census to Capture Diversity

Nisian Hughes

Nisian Hughes

We have all filled out government forms at one time or another, whether it was for state exam testing or getting your drivers license. For most Americans, checking the race box is pretty straightforward—White, Black, and Chinese are some of the less confusing options. For Hispanic/Latino/Spanish (hereafter referred to as Hispanic/s), Middle Easterns or North Africans and people of mixed backgrounds, it can get complicated. For example, on past census surveys, Hispanic citizens had their own section, see Classic form. Federal officials are considering moving forward with changes to make the process less ambiguous for future census participants. First, it is essential to understand why capturing census data is critical.

Census Reporting is Essential

Census surveys are an important part of our nation’s posterity. They do more than simply provide demographics for an increasingly diverse nation. According to the Census Bureau, census data “affects the number of seats a state occupies in the U.S. House of Representatives and is used to advocate for causes, rescue disaster victims, prevent diseases, research markets, and locate pools of skilled workers.”  Furthermore, census data helps determine how 400 billion dollars will be allocated for infrastructure and public services like hospitals, schools, and senior centers, to name a few. Miscounting or underreporting may be a significant disservice to a community in need.

For Hispanics, underreporting is an historical problem. Before 1970, Hispanics were largely ignored. Even so, when the government made an attempt to enumerate the Hispanic population through self-reporting in 1970, Hispanics were largely overrepresented when compared to expected estimates. This was the result of many Americans misinterpreting the definition of Central and South American, to mean Central and Southern United States. Several alterations have been made to the Census Survey since 1970 for good cause—according to a Census Population Survey and Pew Research Center, as of 2015, there is an estimated 55 million Hispanics living in the United States, and that number is growing.

Hispanics currently represent approximately 17% of the population, or 1 in 6 Americans. This number is expected to rise to a whopping 119 million by 2060, or 28.6% of the population. Counter-intuitive to what some might refer to as the ‘political right narrative’, this rise isn’t due to immigration from abroad, or foreign born Hispanics. Instead, the Pew Research Center reports that the growth of the Hispanic population since 2000 is primarily due to births in the United States. With an overwhelming need to account for this large part of the United States population, the Census Bureau is looking to add clarity to the existing surveys.

The Devil is in the Details

The hang-up for Hispanics comes down to two questions: Question 8 and 9 (Classic). Historically, Hispanics do well in answering the Hispanic Origin section (Question 8), which deals with ethnicity. But when it comes to the follow-up race question (Question 9), many Hispanics struggle. In the 2010 Census, 13% of Hispanics skipped question 9. Another 30% reported the same information in Question 9 as they reported in Question 8. What is behind the confusion? It may come down to an issue of self-identity. How do Hispanic citizens self-identify?  In the Classic form, Hispanic citizens are pigeonholed into selecting White, Black, American Indian or Alaskan Native, and/or a specific Asian race. To make it easier, the Census Bureau is looking to make changes that are subtle in some examples and dramatic in others. 

Three iterations are currently available for what we might see in 2020. In the first example, the ethnicity (formerly origin) and race questions remain the same for Hispanics, with the simple omission of the term origin in the question—in previous iterations, the term origin had a perceived ambiguity. In the directions that precede question 8, origin is supplanted by ethnicities. The hope is that the use of ethnicity will help respondents distinguish between ethnicity and race.  Two other iterations, Combined wWrite-Ins, and Combined wCheckboxes, do away with the separate ethnicity and race section for Hispanics. The Combined wWrite-Ins is the streamlined version of the three, which contains many broad categories for respondents to choose from, with a fill-in-the-blank section to specify certain sub-groups (e.g. White – Irish). However, the fill-in-the-blank section limits respondents of mixed heritage. The Combined wCheckboxes version is similar to the Combined wWrite-Ins version, except that it includes supergroups, or groups that are most common for particular races. For example, a White respondent, with Irish and Norwegian descent can now fully disclose how they self-identify. 

Making thoughtful improvements to the Census Survey is an important endeavor, especially since it only provides a snapshot of our growing nation every 10 years. As issues of identity or race continue to take center stage of the national conversation, it will be important to know how the racial pie is divided. I believe the Combined wWrite-Ins version of the Census Survey provides the most bits of information in order to effectively determine the United States demographics. Furthermore, accounting for emerging communities, such as the Middle Eastern or North African (or MENA) groups, will enhance our ability to create a more inclusive country, despite our present culture of divisiveness. As John F. Kennedy once said, “If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.