Why Accurate Census Data Matter: A Case Study on Asian American Communities in NYC


By Louise Liu and Amia Jackson

A basement apartment in New York City flooding due to Hurricane Ida. Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Seonae Byeon, a civil rights organizer and Korean immigrant from Flushing, Queens, says she knows many individuals in New York City’s Asian American community who live in basements and attics, or share a single bedroom with two or three others. Individuals in these non-traditional housing arrangements often end up miscounted in the census, which can have significant effects on community support and funding allocations — concerns particularly pertinent for those living in densely populated areas like New York City. The Quality of the Decennial Census for Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Communities: An Expanded Approach, a report authored by Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC, explores the accuracy of the census — which includes counting people like Byeon’s neighbors living in nontraditional housing — and investigates how undercounts and overcounts impact AANHPI communities.

Asian Americans are among the fastest growing racial groups in the United States, with over 22 million Asian American-identifying people who call this country home. These communities are incredibly diverse, encompassing a wide range of ethnicities that trace their ancestral roots to over 40 countries in Asia. In New York City, Asian Americans make up over 16% of the city’s entire population, or 1.5 million people across its five boroughs. That figure is especially large considering the expansion of the Asian American community accounts for more than half of the city’s overall population increase in the past decade.

However, the census has struggled to accurately capture the growth of the city’s Asian American community: In the 2020 Census, Asian American communities were overcounted in every single borough, with the lowest overcount in Staten Island (7.9%) and the highest overcount in the Bronx (21.4%).

The potential overcount of the Asian American community in New York City — and the country as a whole — is surprising, because the census has historically undercounted communities of color. A New York Times article, referencing the undercounts that took place in the most recent census, found that “the 2020 Census seriously undercounted the number of Hispanic, Black and Native American residents even though its overall population count was largely accurate.” And although Asian Americans experienced a net overcount in the 2020 Census, they were routinely undercounted before 2000, and are still undercounted in a majority of counties (68%) in 2020 — a figure consistent with the 2010 Census and greater than that of the 2000 Census.

Experts caution against the narrative of census overcounts of Asian American populations in fear that it suggests economic advantage, further feeding “model minority” myths.

In an interview with NBC News, data and policy expert Howard Shih said, “It’s really important that we don’t view this overcount as meaning the Asian community is doing fine[…] There’s significant portions of the Asian community that are harder to count, that are unaware of the importance of being counted or have language issues.”

Terry Ao Minnis, Advancing Justice — AAJC’s Vice President of Census and Voting Rights, voiced similar concerns about the potential overcount, noting “inaccurate count of AANHPI communities at local levels means that those communities are missing out on vital financial resources and political representation where it counts the most — close to home.”

In New York City particularly, where the Asian American non-citizen population is unevenly distributed, citizenship status tended to impact census miscount rates. Tracts with higher proportions of non-citizens yielded lower self-response rates, which tend to correlate with greater undercounts.

Impact of age on 2020 Census accuracy for Asian Americans in New York and the U.S. Source: The Quality of the Decennial Census Report.

Miscount rates were also not consistent across age groups. According to the report, young Asian American children (ages 0–4) were undercounted across all New York City boroughs despite there not being an undercount among Asian American children (ages 0–4) nationally, with Staten Island producing the largest undercount of young children (ages 0–9) across all boroughs as well as the United States as a whole. Additionally, Manhattan had a larger estimated overcount for the Asian American young adult population than any other borough or the United States nationally.

These results are consistent with Census Bureau research indicating that young children, as well as other vulnerable groups including immigrants and racial minorities, are more likely to be undercounted — while groups typically associated with higher socioeconomic status, such as college students, were more likely to be overcounted.

Asian American communities across the country, including those living in densely packed areas like New York, can only benefit from accurate census numbers. In communities like Ms. Byeon’s, the miscounting of Asian Americans has serious consequences. Such was the case in 2021, when Hurricane Ida resulted in major flooding in NYC and the deaths of several tenants of basement apartments. Accurate data are essential for disaster preparedness, response planning, stormwater infrastructure, affordable housing, and more — issues that particularly affect vulnerable populations most in need of government and community resources.

To address the needs of historically marginalized groups more accurately and adequately, Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC urges the Census Bureau to:

  1. Conduct research to improve how the Bureau measures and assesses the quality of decennial census data, particularly for routinely miscounted populations.
  2. Develop culturally competent and targeted plans to improve decennial census operations and Get Out the Count (GOTC) efforts, especially for smaller populations such as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
  3. Execute best practices in post-fielding activities to improve the mechanics of the count, including correcting for differential under- and overcounts by population.

A country dedicated to providing suitable and adequate resources to all groups is a country that must show dedication to providing accurate Census data, which allows for better planning and outreach to our communities by the Census Bureau, advocacy partners, and local governments for the next decennial census.

Check out The Quality of the Decennial Census for Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Communities: An Expanded Approach report for more details on our findings and recommendations.

Louise Liu is the Anti-Hate Communications Coordinator at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

Amia Jackson is the Spring 2023 Law Clerk at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC has a mission to advance the civil and human rights of Asian Americans and to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all. Visit our website at advancingjustice-aajc.org.



Advancing Justice – AAJC
Advancing Justice — AAJC

Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AsianAmericans to participate in our democracy.