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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.