By the Numbers: Who Gets Counted in the 2020 Census?

The experiences of Asian American & Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have been historically fraught with misrepresentation. Confined to the middle of a Black and White binary and stereotyped as a monolith, AAPI communities and the conversation around their nuanced realities have been muddled, hindering meaningful conversation and change. This series will work to unveil the authentic narratives, pay tribute to histories, and contribute to a growing body of discussion on the AAPI experience. With CSSP’s journey of becoming an anti-racist organization and its mission of striving for a just society in which all children and families thrive, we as part of the staff are committed to reframing narratives and learning from the evidence we encounter. We hope this series will move AAPI communities from the middle into the foreground of racial dialogue and their truths will claim stake within America’s political consciousness.

Every 10 years, the United States must take a count of all residents (regardless of citizenship status) within its boundaries, including the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories (Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). With the upcoming decennial census that began earlier this month, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islander groups (collectively referred to as AANHPI) are working hard to ensure that they won’t be excluded from the count. AANHPIs are among one of the “hard-to-count” demographics, which also includes other racial groups, young children ages 0-4, renter households, persons in low-income households, persons experiencing homelessness, and persons with mental or physical disabilities.

Because the census tells us a great deal about communities of color, inaccurate counts can be a profound equity issue. Ensuring fair data collection and reporting are critically important to:


(1) Allocate proper funding and electoral support.

Census data determines the allocation of $880 billion dollars and more than 300 federal funding programs (including Head Start, Medicaid, Medicare, and CHIP) as well as redistricting within certain states. Inaccurate numbers can cause groups of people—particularly people of color and immigrants—to lose funding and support for their communities. For example, one-tenth of Asian American and one-third of Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander children and pregnant women relied on the Head Start and Early Head Start program, an $8.3 billion dollar program, in the 2015 – 2016 school year. Moreover, this unequal allocation of funding or electoral representation in communities already systematically disadvantaged reaffirms racism and classism.


(2) Acknowledge and address social barriers.

While people of color were undercounted in 2010, non-Hispanic Whites were overcounted by almost 1 percent. While the U.S. Census Bureau reported that AANHPIs did not have a statistically significant undercount in 2010, other surveys indicated that they were the least likely racial group to participate (only 55% of Asian Americans said they were “extremely” or “very likely” to fill out the census form, compared to 69% of Whites, 65% of Latinos, and 64% of Blacks).

Last year, advocacy groups and community members worked to successfully remove a proposed citizenship question on the 2020 census because of fears that it could deter Asian and Latino immigrants from participating. Many Asians fear their answers on the census could be used against them; they’re the most concerned racial group (41% of Asians are “extremely or very concerned” compared to 35% of Blacks and 32% of Hispanics). Other obstacles that specifically impact AANHPI response include low-income status, lack of familiarity with the census, and limited English proficiency. Asians also have the highest language barriers of any racial group (35% of Asians speak English “less than very well”, compared to 32% of Latinos and 14% of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders).


(3) Dispel monolithic mythologies of AANHPI communities.

The reliability of collecting accurate data from AANHPI populations is further complicated because reporting protocols combine all Asian ethnicities under a monolith that most typically reflects only East and South Asian experiences. Aggregating data in this way provides a limited picture of AANHPI experiences and perpetuates the racial mythology that all AANHPI groups are the same—successful and high-achieving. Known as the “model minority” myth, this disguises the unique challenges and realities of individual subpopulations and disproportionately misrepresents the needs of specific ethnicities in the AANHPI population. Asian American groups with less privilege can also become more invisible, leading policymakers to take less responsibility in addressing their needs.

Even though the 2010 census collected data by ethnic groups, the 2012 Census Coverage Measurement Estimation Report on the 2010 survey reported only the net undercount of non-Hispanic Asians, but did not report undercount rates by ethnic group or immigrant status. Experts have already cautioned that national, state, and local data collection must disaggregate data to understand the needs of diverse Asian Americans, especially South East Asians who are underrepresented in the national conversation about Asians in the United States (i.e. “Asian Americans receive a median income higher than other [racial] groups”). By combining the experiences of more than 35 Asian ethnicities into one racial group category (“Asian”), we risk distorting the realities of certain Asian subgroups.

However, when institutions separate and report data by specific ethnic and/or subpopulation groups, we see a more rich and complex picture of the AANHPI experience. For example, while a myth of having high educational attainment (compared to other racial groups) persists, there are in fact wide educational disparities within AANHPI sub-populations. For example, approximately 75% of Taiwanese and Indian Americans obtain at least a Bachelor’s degree while 17% or less of Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, and Bhutanese obtain the same

Despite being drastically underfunded, the U.S. Census Bureau enacted broad recruiting efforts to encourage people who are bilingual to apply, and to hire eligible noncitizens, as interpreters, translators, or enumerators. The Bureau has also taken the initiative to provide language glossaries and language guides to assist with translations and further break down language barriers. However, there remains concern about the Bureau’s cost-cutting efforts to optimize self-response by encouraging people to respond via the Internet; these efforts will naturally create “fewer linguistically and culturally competent staff”. Even though census workers will visit households who fail to respond online, forms are only offered in English and Spanish.

Ultimately, AANHPI groups and advocates are raising concerns about an accurate 2020 Census because equity and data are deeply tied. Knowing that the census is largely responsible for appropriating federal resources to the local- and state-level, we must not overlook the knowledge and perspectives of AANHPI populations—and of groups most impacted by structural and systemic oppression like racism, anti-immigrant racism, and classism—whose experiences need to be heard. Racial groups and low-income groups are two of many communities that are often left behind in the data making of the U.S. Census, but their involvement is crucial to learn how to achieve more equitable outcomes for all. At CSSP, we place equity at the center of knowledge development, and we recognize that we must always turn our attention to ensuring those most affected by public systems have the opportunity to be part of the evidence.