‘UNDERCOUNTED’ Asian Americans continue to face barriers to being accurately represented by Census data


Every 10 years, the United States Census Bureau sets out to gather information about the country’s population with a short questionnaire. Americans were encouraged to send their forms back by April 1, and one month later, on May 1, census workers started going door-to-door to collect answers from non-respondents.

Despite the scope of this undertaking, there is a broad misconception that the census is an inane and inconsequential government formality. But in actuality, census data and the way it is gathered have significant consequences for everyone in this country, Asian Americans — a group that has sometimes had a troubled relationship with the census — in particular.

Census data is used to determine how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives and how to redraw state legislative and congressional districts. It’s also used to determine funding for government programs like Medicaid and for planning locations for schools, roads, hospitals child-care centers, and other public facilities. Community needs are assessed based on demographics that the census data provides.

Census Data Crucial for Community Funding

KNOCK, KNOCK — Phillip Ozaki (R), manager of the Japanese American Citizens League’s Census Outreach project, demonstrating how the door-to-door canvassing goes. photo by Ashley T. Nagaoka

“I do not think most people know how crucial the census is for data and for community funding,” said Phillip Ozaki, Norman Mineta Fellow at the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and manager of JACL’s Census Outreach project, explaining that census data also has several applications uniquely relevant to Asian Americans. Data can be used to monitor civil rights issues, hate crimes, and anti-discrimination laws and it also provides clear and trusted statistics for various Asian American communities and ethnic groups.

“Too often, Asian Americans are reported as being well-off with high median household incomes and high educational attainment rates,” Melany Dela Cruz-Viesca, assistant director of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California Los Angeles, told UCLA Today. “But when you break down the data to look specifically at Pacific Islanders, Vietnamese, Hmong and Cambodians, for example, a different picture emerges. We want policymakers to take that into consideration when they make decisions

around funding.”

UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, as well as more than 100 nonprofits in the National Coalition of Asian Pacific American Community Development, use census data to clarify the need for services to Asian Americans, and improve their own programs and services.

“Essentially, $4 billion of federal funding annually is up for grabs and census data determines where it is going to be distributed,” Ozaki added. “If we don’t respond, the numbers will be inaccurate and we will miss out. Each person who doesn’t respond misses out on $1,300 over the next 10 years.”

Barriers to Ensuring Asian Americans Counted in Census

There are, however, significant barriers to getting an accurate count of Asian Americans. According to the Asian American Justice Center (AAJC) in Washington, D.C., Asian Americans have been historically — and continue to be — undercounted. According to Steward Kwoh, president and executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California (APALC), Asian Pacific Islanders in California were undercounted by 35 percent. And while the bureau has expanded outreach efforts to ensure a more accurate count, this decade’s census faces increased barriers to accuracy.

The Asian American population has grown larger (by 26 percent in the last decade), more ethnically diverse and more transient, the AAJC asserts, all of which has made the population harder to access through a single channel.

Additionally, Asian Americans mistrust the government — according to Census Bureau focus groups — lack knowledge about the census and are reluctant to share data with such agencies.

“Cambodian, Lao and Pacific Islander youth and the recently incarcerated are among the most undercounted Asian Americans,” said Raymond Sin, an outreach worker for the Oakland, Calif.,-based Community Health for Asian Americans census project. “Many of these people fear that giving data could lead to them losing benefits, when they have the most to gain by answering.”

Recent government abuses and infringements of privacy in the name of the so-called war on terror have contributed to concerns, as has the way census data was used during World War II to facilitate the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans.

The Census Bureau’s outreach efforts have attempted to address these concerns. When the usage of census data in the Japanese American incarceration came to light during the 2000 census, the bureau issued an apology and asserted that important safeguards were put into place by the government to preclude a repeat of such a “sad, shameful event in American history.”

Justice Dept. Asserts Confidentiality of Census

“The U.S. Department of Justice has issued a statement declaring that no other law overrides the confidentiality of the census,” Ozaki said. “The Patriot Act can’t even trump it.”

Another step toward ensuring a more accurate count came with the 2000 census, in which mixed-race people —“one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the country,” according to Nicholas Jones, chief of the Census Bureau racial statistics branch — were allowed to check more than one box under the race category for the first time.

According to USA Today, mixedrace marriages have jumped 20 percent in the last decade. And while the 2000 census reports that 2.6 percent of Americans identify as mixed-race, there is a significant mixed-race population that does not identify as such, including fully 58 percent of African Americans. who, according to geneticist Mark Shriver at Morehouse College, possess at least 12.5 percent European ancestry. Of all racial groups in the United States, Asians self-identify as mixed-race more than any other group. Demographers predict that by the year 2020, almost 20 percent of all Asian Americans will be mixed-race.

“Japanese Americans have the highest rates of outmarriage among all Asian Pacific Islander groups,” Ozaki adds. “[The modification to the census] ensures we’ll be counted accurately.”

Some kinks still exist in this system. The census only counts mixedrace households if the person of color completes the form as Person 1.

There has been some debate over what the practical effects of the decision to allow mixed-race people to check multiple boxes will be. However, many mixed-race people have expressed that they find the change personally meaningful.

“The emotional implications of being allowed to check all boxes that apply are extremely significant,” Wei Ming Dariotis, assistant professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, explained. “It means not having to choose one side of your family over the other. It means not having to deny part of your heritage, and not having to limit yourself to fit neatly into a single box.”

Census data also functions as a snapshot of the country, one that can be investigated by later generations when the data becomes public.

“Census data is an important part of the research of many, if not most U.S. historians,” Greg Robinson, associate professor of history at L’Université du Québec a Montréal, explained. “It allows me to find out information on the prewar ethnic Japanese population in the United States, especially those outside the centers of population — I got a description of location and occupation of the three JAs in Mississippi on 1930.”

“Perhaps the most important part the census forms take for my research is that they list the given names of all the brothers and sisters then living in a family. Using that information, I can sometimes find surviving siblings of deceased Nisei, who can furnish me pertinent information about family members,” added Robinson, author of “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America.”

Despite the value of census information, economically stressed state and local governments are less able to invest money in outreach — California spent $25 million on outreach in the 2000 census, but because of the state’s budget crisis, it will only spend $2 million for the 2010 census — leaving much of the outreach work to community organizations.

The census is currently in the process of going door-to-door to follow up with non-respondents and will be doing so until July.

“JACL and many other communities are fighting to do this final push to get everyone counted in the census,” Ozaki said. “If you don’t get counted before July, then you don’t get counted for the next 10 years and our communities will lose some needed resources.”

For more information about the U.S. Census Bureau, call (301) 763- INFO (4636), or 800-923-8282, visit http://www.census.gov, or write to U.S. Census Bureau, 4600 Silver Hill Road, Washington, D.C. 20233. Japanese-language materials are available at www.fi llinourfuture.org. Census forms may be available at local libraries or government offices and must be received by July 1.

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