Call to Action: 2020 Census and Data Equity for AAPIs

In 2019, AAPI Data noted that Census 2020 had a “Big Asian American Problem.” In particular, we were concerned about Asian Americans expressing the lowest levels of intent to fill out the Census form among the racial groups included in a survey on barriers to Census participation. Thanks to tireless outreach and mobilization on the part of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community organizations, as well as dedicated outreach on the part of Census Bureau staff, the 2020 Census captured the tremendous growth of our respective populations.

Powering the tremendous community outreach for a strong Census count was the importance of detailed ethnicity data, especially for smaller population groups like Cambodians, Burmese, Tongans, and Samoans. These data are critical to serve the needs of diverse groups within the AAPI umbrella. Census 2020 collected reportable data on more than 20 distinct Asian American national-origin groups and at least 8 Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander groups.  But these detailed data only help to advance equity in our community if they are released in a timely manner.

And therein lies one of the major problems with the release of 2020 Census data.

Unlike in the past, when the Census Bureau released data on detailed origin in the year or two following each decennial Census, we now face the prospect of having access to this data only in 2023 or 2024, years after the original data have been collected. These delays are particularly problematic for groups with rapidly growing populations, with outdated data compromising the effectiveness of government agencies, philanthropies, and community organizations serving these groups.

For decades, the collection of disaggregated data has been a civil rights issue for our community.  We need data on all of our Asian American and Pacific Islander groups to identify and address persistent disparities, including between larger Asian American groups, such as Chinese and Indians, and smaller groups, such as Vietnamese, Lao people, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders.

Detailed ethnicity data are also essential to providing language services. For example, county hospitals need access to timely data on Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Hmong, and other groups in their community that have relatively low levels of English proficiency. In many smaller counties, decennial Census data is the only reliable source of accurate information about populations that might require language assistance.

There are several other areas of concern with respect to the release of detailed ethnicity data from the 2020 Census.

  1. Delays in Census data release will harm other survey collections. Past experience from the 2010 Census has shown that other data from 2009 and 2010, such as the Census American Community Survey data, significantly underestimated the size of our communities because they were based on the 2000 Census population count. It will be critical for ethnicity data in the 2021 American Community Survey to be benchmarked against ethnicity data in the 2020 Census. Further, detailed ethnicity data from the Census provide important benchmarking data that are essential to ensure accurate survey weights in other surveys, including surveys of health, education, and public opinion. The prospect of a delay in the release of ethnicity data until 2023 or 2024, will force survey researchers to construct sample weights using inaccurate benchmarks that ultimately pin back to the 2010 Census.
  2. Unlike in the past, the Census Bureau is not automatically creating tables with detailed ethnicity data. Instead, it is asking data users to indicate their priority tables, placing an undue burden on communities and community-serving organizations that are already struggling from the pandemic. After 2010, the Census Bureau generated a slew of data tables by race and detailed origin. Rather than automatically producing those same tables, the agency is asking researchers and community organizations to indicate which data tables they rely on, for what topics, and for what levels of geography.This process requires deep familiarity with the Census and data request procedures, which most AAPI-serving community organizations do not have. Many community organizations also rely on Census ethnicity data that has been re-formatted or re-analyzed by other institutions. Many community organizations are finding it challenging to develop a formal “use-case” document in a short period of time, and having to navigate data product cross-walks and combing through technical documentation from a decade ago.
  3. Unlike in the past, some Census data will not be available below the county level unless public users can make a specific and convincing case to produce this data. This forces community organizations to make their requests now and limits their ability to address needs that might arise in the future.
  4. New procedures on differential privacy will mean that certain communities will be rendered entirely invisible. Although we understand the need to protect the privacy of individuals who participated in the Census, many in our Pacific Islander communities voice serious concerns that smaller Pacific Islander groups will not be included in detailed data releases due to new privacy protocols adopted for Census 2020.

All of these issues seriously jeopardize the ability of community organizations to identify and meet the pressing social and economic needs of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.  To address these concerns, we are working with community partners on a national awareness-raising campaign, and to encourage the U.S. Census Bureau to take corrective action.

A sample letter for the Census Bureau’s current comment period (deadline December 18, 2021), with easy-to-understand guidance for our community partners can be found here: