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Streamlined questions could improve Census

Updated: February 20, 2014 6:46AM

In sports, the offseason is considered a critical time for improvement. That’s when athletes work on perfecting new moves, like a crossover dribble, or fix their unreliable jump shots.

You could say this is the offseason for the U.S. Census Bureau, best known for its official count of the country’s population every decade. The bureau is busy preparing the 2020 census, tweaking it to avoid non-responses and improve accuracy. In four years, census questions for 2020 must be delivered to Congress.

By then we could see a significant change in how the bureau asks about ethnicity and race, tricky topics. In a nation known as a melting pot, it’s hard to include everyone in a question or two.

In 2010, two questions covered race and ethnicity. The first asked whether the respondent was of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin, a question that seems simple enough, yet it was left blank by about 21 million. The second asked about race, a question left blank by more than 13 million, mostly Hispanics.

That question had an option for “some other race” favored by scores of Hispanics over the options of white or black. Among the write-in choices, some wrote a country of origin while others wrote moreno, Spanish for dark or brown.

Those of Middle Eastern or North African descent also found themselves excluded from the race category, underscoring that there is much more to race in America than black, white, American Indian or Asian.

“We’ve known from research that a growing number find classification systems confusing or irrelevant,” said Nicholas Jones, chief of the bureau’s racial statistics division.

The bureau’s research over the last several years has shown that one streamlined question for race and ethnicity will significantly lower non-responses. In an experimental survey of nearly 500,000 households in 2010, the non-response rate dropped to about 1 percent with the streamlined question.

That question combined race and ethnicity and allowed respondents to check multiple categories. Specific origins could be included in every category. For example, those who marked “white” could write British, German, Irish and so on.

“It worked well in many communities,” Jones said. “They felt it provided equity.”

If adopted for 2020, the question might still pose a dilemma for some, according to sociologist Margaret Hunter of Mills College in California. “It wouldn’t distinguish someone who identifies as mixed race and someone of [two] origins that isn’t a product of an interracial marriage,” she said.

Nevertheless, sociologists largely support the new approach, she added with this caveat: “Measuring race in America is imperfect.”

The bureau is moving in the right direction. Congress hopefully is paying attention. It is unsettling to think progress could be stunted if politicians do not buy in.

We know they care because the census produces numbers that ultimately lead to allocation of seats in the House of Representatives and distribution of federal funding.

Politically, every community wants to be represented.

“The census is the cornerstone of democracy,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. His group is one of many in close contact with the bureau on subjects of race and ethnicity.

“Those numbers are used for redistricting and to make sure Latinos will have a fair shot at representation,” Vargas added.

A measure of sentiment is also a factor, which is why thousands of private citizens reach out to the bureau for assurances on inclusion.

It is about feeling that you count.


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