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2020 Census: What’s at Stake for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

Communities that are undercounted may be denied their fair share of federal funding and political representation.

April 2, 2020

Asian Amer­ic­ans are the fast­est grow­ing racial group in the United States. However, a study by AAPIData at the Univer­sity of Cali­for­nia found that Asian Amer­ic­ans were less likely than any other demo­graphic group to say they inten­ded to parti­cip­ate in the 2020 Census. They are also the group that is least famil­iar with the census — and the most worried that their answers to the census “will be used against them.”

These chal­lenges risk exacer­bat­ing the under­count­ing of Asian Amer­ic­ans in the census — a prob­lem that has persisted for decades — and one that could under­mine efforts by Asian Amer­ic­ans to secure federal fund­ing, mobil­ize polit­ical power, and gather crit­ical inform­a­tion on their communit­ies. But grass­roots organ­iz­a­tions are making a strong push in their census outreach to Asian Amer­ican communit­ies and encour­aging indi­vidu­als to get coun­ted.

Why Asian Amer­ic­ans and Pacific Islanders need an accur­ate census

Sixteen million people in the United States were not coun­ted during the 2010 Census, accord­ing to U.S. Census Bureau stat­ist­ics, and Asian Amer­ic­ans and Native Hawaii­ans and Pacific Islanders have been under­coun­ted for decades — a prob­lem that could deny communit­ies their fair share of federal fund­ing and polit­ical repres­ent­a­tion.

Federal, state, and local offi­cials rely on census stat­ist­ics to help determ­ine how to alloc­ate federal fund­ing for major health­care programs such as Medi­caid, Medi­care, Chil­dren’s Health Insur­ance Program (CHIP), the Supple­mental Nutri­tion Assist­ance Program (SNAP), and a number of repro­duct­ive health programs. Census data also helps decide the distri­bu­tion of fund­ing for educa­tion programs, includ­ing bilin­gual language programs, the National School Lunch Program, and Tier I grants, which provides finan­cial assist­ance to schools and local educa­tion agen­cies with large numbers of low-income students.  

But when communit­ies are under­coun­ted, they may receive less than their fair share of resources from these govern­ment programs — and some Asian-Amer­ican communit­ies may be partic­u­larly at risk. Around 13 percent of Asian Amer­ic­ans and 15 percent of Native Hawaii­ans and Pacific Islanders lack health insur­ance cover­age, with higher percent­ages within specific groups — as high as 22 percent for Nepalese Amer­ic­ans. And while Asian Amer­ic­ans have a relat­ively high rate of educa­tional attain­ment over­all, the disag­greg­ated data reveals signi­fic­antly lower rates among certain groups. For example, 62 percent of Bhutanese and 50 percent of Burmese Amer­ic­ans lack a high school degree.

An accur­ate census is also essen­tial for help­ing ensure that Asian Amer­ic­ans receive adequate polit­ical repres­ent­a­tion — and are able to parti­cip­ate in U.S. demo­cracy. The Voting Rights Act requires juris­dic­tions to provide language assist­ance for Asian Amer­ican, Hispanic, Amer­ican Indian, and Alaska Native voters at the polls, such as trans­lated ballots and bilin­gual poll work­ers. Census stat­ist­ics help dictate the specific languages or dialects in which juris­dic­tions will offer that assist­ance. Addi­tion­ally, census results inform the polit­ical redis­trict­ing process, which determ­ines the districts and number of seats for both the House of Repres­ent­at­ives and state legis­latures for the ensu­ing decade.

Finally, the census is an import­ant tool for docu­ment­ing the diversity of Asian Amer­ican and Pacific Islander communit­ies in the United States — and the social, economic, and polit­ical dispar­it­ies within them.

Fears and hurdles to census parti­cip­a­tion

Even though they stand to bene­fit from an accur­ate count, many Asian Amer­ic­ans are worried about parti­cip­at­ing in the census. Accord­ing to a 2019 Census Bureau report, 41 percent of Asian Amer­ican survey respond­ents were concerned that their answers “will be used against them.” In contrast, Black, Latino, and white respond­ents were, respect­ively, 35 percent, 32 percent, and 16 percent likely to express the same concern.

Fears around census parti­cip­a­tion may partially stem from the current polit­ical envir­on­ment. In 2018, for example, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion proposed adding a citizen­ship ques­tion to the 2020 Census, even though the ques­tion would have signi­fic­antly reduced census parti­cip­a­tion. Legal chal­lenges ensued, and, in a victory for the census and the coun­try, the Supreme Court struck down the ques­tion, ruling that the admin­is­tra­tion’s decision to add it viol­ated federal law.

Despite that ruling and the fact that a citizen­ship ques­tion cannot appear on the 2020 census, some remain confused or worried about the implic­a­tions of filling out a census form, perhaps a response to the admin­is­tra­tion’s repu­ta­tion for anti-immig­rant rhet­oric and policies. Addi­tion­ally, some Muslim immig­rants are worried about the confid­en­ti­al­ity of the census, partic­u­larly in the wake of Trump’s ongo­ing anti-Muslim rhet­oric and his admin­is­tra­tion’s travel ban on several Muslim-major­ity coun­tries.

For some, the recent legal battle over the citizen­ship ques­tion echoed a historic event during which the federal govern­ment actu­ally did use citizen­ship inform­a­tion against Asian Amer­ic­ans. During World War II, Congress passed the Second War Powers Act, which allowed the federal govern­ment to obtain confid­en­tial census inform­a­tion and use it to identify people of Japan­ese descent — and forcibly incar­cer­ate 120,000 indi­vidu­als in intern­ment camps. That could not happen again under today’s strict census confid­en­ti­al­ity laws, which prevent the Census Bureau from disclos­ing person­ally iden­ti­fi­able inform­a­tion or from using census data to harm people. But anxi­et­ies from the memor­ies of Japan­ese intern­ment linger nonethe­less.

Even if they over­come fears about the census, many Asian Amer­ic­ans still face signi­fic­ant hurdles to actu­ally parti­cip­at­ing in it. Approx­im­ately one in five Asian Amer­ic­ans and one-third of Native Hawaii­ans and Pacific Islanders live in hard-to-count census tracts. Asian Amer­ic­ans are also the racial group with the highest language barri­ers, with 35 percent who speak English “less than very well.” Currently, the offi­cial census ques­tion­naire is avail­able in only five Asian languages — Chinese, Japan­ese, Korean, Taga­log, and Viet­namese — although other census resources and mater­i­als are avail­able in addi­tional languages in some juris­dic­tions.

How advoc­ates are push­ing for census parti­cip­a­tion

Despite these hurdles, there are major efforts to encour­age Asian Amer­ic­ans to parti­cip­ate in the census. For example, in the last year, the organ­iz­a­tion Asian and Pacific Islander Amer­ican Vote has provided train­ing for 750 local groups for census outreach in Asian Amer­ican and Pacific Islander communit­ies.

Asian Amer­ic­ans Advan­cing Justice (AAJC) has played a major role in push­ing Congress and the Census Bureau to conduct the census in ways that will remove barri­ers to parti­cip­a­tion for Asian Amer­ic­ans and maxim­ize their count. AAJC has also compiled and published an exhaust­ive list of resources from part­ner organ­iz­a­tions, organ­ized under the campaign Count Us In 2020.

And at the state level, there are Asian Pacific Amer­ican Complete Count Commit­tees across the coun­try work­ing with local govern­ments and community organ­iz­a­tions on census outreach efforts.

Together, these efforts should help achieve a more accur­ate count of the Asian Amer­ican, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communit­ies in the United States and ensure they get their fair share of federal fund­ing and polit­ical repres­ent­a­tion in the next decade.