Why advocates need an accurate census

The Asian American community depends on census data to shine a light on necessary resources

by Howard Shih

The 2020 Census has emerged as a hot topic in the news due to the controversial last minute addition of the citizenship question to the Census form and the lawsuits that are seeking to remove the citizenship question. The inclusion of the citizenship question will undoubtedly result in a less complete Census. A result of this fear has been that communities across the country are organizing earlier than ever before to ensure a complete and accurate census.While outreach and education are important to ensure full participation, communities will not realize the full benefit of the 2020 Census if the data collected is not tabulated and released at the level of detail needed. The Census Bureau has released a Federal Register Notice (FRN) entitled, “Soliciting Feedback from Users on 2020 Census Data Products” with a quickly approaching deadline for November 8. In the notice, the Census Bureau states, “Given the need for improved confidentiality protection, we may reduce the amount of detailed data that we release to the public.” This FRN is in response to the increasing sophistication of data mining technologies and wider availability of computing power. The Census Bureau plans to publish scientific research papers that outline the theory and techniques that have emerged as potential threats to data confidentiality. However, we must work together with the Census Bureau to find the right balance between data accessibility and data protection. The Asian American community will need to engage with the Census Bureau to inform them on the levels of detail we will need to allocate adequate resources and advocate on behalf of our communities.

Since 2001, the Asian American Federation (AAF) has housed one of 52 Census Information Centers (CICs). The main goal of the CIC is to help the Asian American communities of New York City to access and use Census Bureau data. An accurate census is vital to the work AAF does to highlight the growth and diversity in the Asian American community. As an example, in June of this year we released a report on poverty among Asian American New Yorkers, titled Hidden in Plain Sight. We used data from the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey (ACS). In the report we highlight the high rates of poverty in the Asian American communities of New York. For example, in upstate New York, Asian Americans living in poverty more than doubled from 2000 to 2016. The poverty rate also rose by 3.4 percentage points to 23.1 percent from 2000 to 2016. The detailed geographical data provided by the Census data, helped us to identify the cities where Asian American poverty was largely concentrated, such as Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Ithaca, Rochester, Rome, Syracuse, and Utica.

Because of the detailed data on immigrants provided in the ACS, we were able to find that the rise in poverty rates was driven in part by a wave of refugees resettled from Bhutan and Myanmar, countries that have not traditionally sent immigrants to the United States in large numbers.

In New York city too, details from the ACS allowed us to determine that Limited English proficiency (LEP), low educational attainment, inability to transfer professional credentials, and access to social services were some of the major contributing factors to poverty in the Asian American community in the city.

As a result of our analysis in the Hidden in Plain Sight report, we are able to advocate for expanding economic and workforce development opportunities, strengthening culturally and linguistically appropriate public education and outreach, and funding for more social services and healthcare programs to address the needs of low-income Asian American families.

What does this have to do with the Census? The 2020 Census will become the baseline data for the next decade that underlines congressional apportionment, redistricting at all levels of government, and the population controls for all survey data in the United States, both government and private. Without the 2020 Census population totals, all survey data, including the ACS, will be unable to determine how many people each survey respondent represents, and the Census Bureau will be unable to design survey plans to ensure that everyone is captured in the final results.

Without a fair and accurate count, the Asian American community would not be able to advocate for itself or shine light on discriminatory practices. Thus, it is imperative that the Asian American community engages around the 2020 Census.

An important first step is for members of the community to submit public comments for the Federal Register Notice on the 2020 Census data products. Public comments can be from individuals or from organizations and may be submitted here until November 8, 2018.

Comments made now will have impact on our communities for the coming decade.

Howard Shih is the director of research and policy at Asian American Federation.




Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

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