The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 9, 2018

Census 2020: Ensuring “hard-to-count” Asian Americans count at the federal, state, and local levels

More than two dozen cities and states have joined in lawsuits against Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s determination that the 2020 Census ask about residents’ citizenship status. Census experts are concerned the question could deter people and communities from participating if they have ties to undocumented immigrants.

This policy change could worsen already inaccurate counts, especially for hard-to-count groups like Asian Americans.

If a respondent skips the citizenship question, he or she will still be counted, but many census experts worry the question will still have a dampening effect on participation. Coupled with the program’s insufficient funding, a decline in participation could undermine the bureau’s mission, which is to provide accurate data about the people living here.

Policymakers use census data to reapportion seats in Congress and redistribute billions of dollars for federal, state, and local resources. Inaccurate counts of communities make it difficult to measure and address the breadth and depth of their needs and directly affect their access to government services (e.g., health services, human services, education and training, and housing).

Additionally, both the private and nonprofit sectors use census data to target their investments. Organizations that aim to serve communities with undercounted data often go underfunded, and areas where these groups live receive less investment.

Asian Americans have multiple risk factors that make them hard to count

According to the Census Bureau, hard-to-count groups include “racial and ethnic minorities, persons who do not speak English fluently, lower income persons, undocumented immigrants, and persons who…distrust the government.”

About 32 percent of Asians living in the United States are noncitizens and account for 14 percent of the undocumented population. Roughly 35 percent have high rates of limited English proficiency, and about one in five Asian households is linguistically isolated—that is, no one in the household older than 13 can speak English exclusively or “very well,” which the Census defines as the highest level of English proficiency.

Language proficiency

While we have limited data on the level of trust Asian Americans have in government, any fears they might have would not be unfounded. During World War II, the US government and census officials abused 1940 Census data to target and incarcerate Japanese Americans in internment camps.

Because some organizations might treat the Asian American and Middle East and North Africa categories as overlapping, similar concerns surfaced during discussions regarding the possible inclusion of a separate Middle East and North Africa category in the census. Advocates believe a distinct category would improve access to research and services, but they are simultaneously wary of more detailed data collection, especially in light of the rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes post 9/11 and the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold the president’s ban on travel from several predominantly Middle Eastern and North African countries.

Inaccurate and undifferentiated counts might overlook the needs of different Asian American populations

Collecting, analyzing, and presenting data on Asian Americans remains challenging for various reasons, like small sample sizes and an uneven geographic distribution. Lingering stereotypes also contribute to the lack of data. The model minority myth says that Asian Americans are doing so well, there is no need to collect their data. And the misperception that Asian Americans are a monolith masks the fact that different subgroups have different outcomes.

Asian Americans encompass a wide range of migration pathways, sociopolitical histories, languages, and cultures. Similarly, needs across and among South Asian, East Asian, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern and North African subgroups differ vastly. Data can inform how different ethnic subgroups are faring in important areas of well-being, such as education, income, language proficiency, wealth, and health.

Just in Maryland, we can see the diversity within the Asian American community by looking at the number of spoken languages.

Languages spoken in MD

And in the DC area, we can see diversity of local needs and outcomes by how housing cost burden varies by ethnicity.

Housing burden

Multiple advocacy organizations have drawn attention to the need for accurate, local data to better serve Asian American communities. A handful of states have heeded the call by introducing bills to disaggregate Asian Americans’ data to address their constituents’ needs.

The New York Assembly just passed a bill requiring certain state agencies, commissions, and boards to collect and publish disaggregated data on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. Other states, like Massachusetts and California, introduced similar bills but were met with strong opposition, much of it from Chinese immigrants concerned that the bill would lead to ethnic profiling and discrimination from elite colleges

Decisions to disaggregate data or not—and the funding allocations required to make that possible—have real consequences for underserved populations. Most federal agencies outside the Census Bureau are not required to collect disaggregated data on Asian Americans. But federal data collection agencies are in critical positions to empower state and local decisionmakers and philanthropic organizations to better understand their communities’ specific needs. They should ensure that hard-to-count populations, like Asian American subgroups, still count.

Photo by KT images/Getty Images.

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