We’ve had years of worry about the confidentiality of people’s census responses, what purposes those responses would be used for, plus the possibility – now abandoned – of being asked about citizenship status. With the 2020 census now officially under way, here’s a look at what those census questionnaires will actually ask us.
There are nine questions on the primary census form (https://tinyurl.com/2020censusquestionnaire). The first asks how many people live in the household. For each of those people, there’s a of seven-question second form. Here are all the questions, starting with the nine asked of every household:
- “How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2020?”
- “Were there any additional people staying here on April 1 that you did not include in Question 1?”
This question offers five possible responses, in the form of checkboxes, to describe such additional people as children, relatives, live-in babysitters, guests or, in the fifth check-box, “no additional people.”
- “Is this house, apartment or mobile home –”
Here, the check-boxes offer four ways to complete the sentence, ranging from “owned by a resident via a mortgage or a loan,” to owned outright, rented or occupied rent-free.
- “What is your telephone number?”
The questionnaire states that you would only be contacted “if needed for official Census Bureau business.”
- The fifth question is specifically directed to the person who pays the rent or owns the residence, and it asks for that person’s first and last names and middle initial. From then on, this person is referred to as “Person 1.”
- “What is Person 1’s sex?”
There are two choices given: male and female.
- Question 7 asks for Person 1’s age and date of birth.
- Question 8 asks if Person 1 is of “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?”
The question offers five check-boxes for responding. The first is “No.” The second is Mexican, Mexican-American or Chicano. The third is Puerto Rican, the fourth is Cuban and the fifth “Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.” This option is followed by space to write in a more specific description, such as “Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian, Guatemalan, Spaniard, Ecuadorian, etc.”
The instructions for this question say, “for this census, Hispanic origins are not races,” and ask respondents, after answering this question, to continue to the next and final question.
- “What is Person 1’s race?”
Here, respondents have 15 check-boxes to choose from, along with five places where they can write in a specific origin.
For instance, after the first check-box, for “white,” respondents are asked to write whether they are, “for example, German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc.”
The next check-box, for “Black of African Am.” also has a write-in line. Its examples of possible responses are: “African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Somali, etc.”
The third check box is for American Indian or Alaska Native and asks respondents here to print the name of “enrolled or principle tribe(s)” and gives as examples “Navajo Nation, Blackfeet Tribe, Mayan, Aztec, Native Village of Barrow Inupiat Traditional Government, Nome Eskimo community, etc.”
After this are 11 more check boxes, for “Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Other Asian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Chamorro, Other Pacific Islander.”
Beneath is a space in which to “Print, for example, Pakistani, Cambodian, Hmong, etc.” if you’ve checked the box for “Other Asian.” Or, if you’ve checked the “Other Pacific Islander” box, to specify “for example, Tongan, Fijian, Marshallese, etc.”
Finally, there’s one more check box, for “Some other race,” with space to write in a specific “race or origin.”
For those households with more than one person, there is a separate, seven-question form for each additional household member. Most of these questions are the same ones Person 1 will have answered, described above, starting with name.
But Question 2, instead of asking if anyone else lives in the household, inquires if “Person 2” usually lives or stays somewhere else. There are nine possible responses offered here, from “no” to eight “yes” options: at college, in the military, for work, in a nursing home, with a relative, at a second or seasonal residence, incarcerated or “for another reason.”
Question 3 asks how Person 2 is related to Person 1. It offers 16 possibilities, from spouse or partner, with separate boxes for same-sex spouses or partners, to a variety of family relationships, such as son/daughter, adopted son/daughter, stepson/daughter, sibling, parent, grandchild, parent- son- or daughter-in-law, “other relative,” roommate, foster child or “other non-relative.”
The remaining four questions are the same as the last four posed to Person 1 about gender, age/birthday, Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin and ethnicity.
Governments and community organizations are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to collect this information this year, and trillions of tax dollars will be distributed over the next decade based on what this data reveals about how many people live where and what their needs are.
And that’s not all – census data determines how many members of congress each state gets and how many electoral college votes. Businesses rely on census data, too, to decide where to invest. The list goes on and on.
Census data that identifies you personally is protected by the government’s most strict confidentiality rules — it’s kept sealed for 72 years.
Everyone in the United States plays a race or ethnic card some time, or at least everyone responding to the census. Despite the scientific view that race is an artificial social construct, unmoored from biological reality, is there a box that best describes you? Whether you plan to respond to the census online, in writing or by telephone, one question you’ll have to answer will be how you self-identify.
FAQ: What are the race and ethnic categories on the census form?
A: Your racial choices are: (1) White; (2) Black or African American; (3) American Indian or Alaskan Native; (4) Asian – with numerous boxes as subsets; and (5) Some other race. The questionnaire also asks, separately, if the respondent is “of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin,” but instructs that, “for this census, Hispanic origins are not races.”
FAQ: What if I’m not white or black? I’m Egyptian and my neighbor is from Iran. What are our options and who determines the categories?
A: You and your neighbor fall into what is called the MENA classification: Middle Eastern and North African. There was a proposal to add MENA to the 2020 form, but the Office of Management and Budget, which makes the assigned identity group determinations about the census, decided to keep the same basic categories that were on the 2010 census form.
FAQ: So, if I’m MENA, what box best describes me?
A: That’s a personal choice. Many MENA residents, and others, end up checking “Some other race,” the
third-largest race category after white and black or African American.
FAQ: But I thought Hispanics and Latinos were now the second-largest racial group in the United States according to their population. So how do you get “Some other race” as the third-largest group?
A: As far as the census is concerned, Hispanics and Latinos are ethnic classifications not racial classifications. Some will check the “White” box and some will check the “Black” box or write in Afro Latino, for example, as an addition. Many will check the “Some other race” box. MENA respondents also frequently check the “Some other race” box as well. They don’t see themselves as black or white, and in most cases, they are not of Hispanic or Latino origin.
FAQ: Have census categories changed over time?
A: Yes. Mulatto, octoroon or quadroon once were options on the census form to describe African Americans of mixed heritage. One estimate calculates that 500,000 of these individuals checked the “White” box on the 1920 form. In later years, public demand and pressure resulted in the OMB removing “Negro” as an option for American-born residents of African descent. The term still appeared on the 2010 decennial census, but on the 2020 form the choices are “Black” or “African American.”
FAQ: What if I was born here, but my parents are from Africa?
A: There is a lot of subjectivity involved in making these choices. For some, black has come to mean anyone who is a descendant of the African diaspora, regardless of where they were born or live. One Somali man, a longtime resident and U.S. citizen, married an American woman who identified as black. When asked how he describes his U.S.-born children, he said, “Well, now that I think about it, I guess they are African American.”
FAQ: What if I am of mixed heritage? My parents are African American, but I know some of their ancestors were from Europe. They were Irish, for example, Dutch or German. Other ancestors, we think, were Native American.
A: The questionnaire is set up so that you can “Mark one or more boxes AND print origins.” We know America has had a complicated history (https://tinyurl.com/EMS-FAQ), as more people are discovering through genomic testing. One adult census respondent recalls discouraging his mother, who identifies as black, from checking every major race category box on the form.
FAQ: Why would it have mattered if she had? What difference does the box I check make or any information I may add?
A: For one, you have a better chance of “owning” who you are. Therefore, you are less likely to be misrepresented by a census employee who, without that information, would make a determination about your identity. So, in that sense, checking every box would be a more accurate contribution to understanding our country’s history.
Individual census data is sealed for 72 years, but in the future your descendants or distant relatives will be able to look you up by name on the census form you respond to this year. In fact, the census is among the primary tools genealogists and researchers use to trace family histories.
You might also reflect on that first constitutionally mandated census in 1790. To achieve a political compromise, those held in bondage were counted only as three-fifths of a person, and their names were not recorded on the census. Even as late as 1860, the last census before the Civil War, some owners reported the age and sex of their captives, but not their names.
FAQ: But how does filling out the census or not affect my immediate financial or economic condition?
A: For practical purposes, as a measure of population, census data is used to determine how the federal and state governments allocate funds and resources, in addition to determining the number of seats states get in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Data can be a double-edged sword. Some data are critical to attempts to address structural disparities among America’s peoples, but data also can used as a guide to steer resources away from those deemed political adversaries. How and why data are used is an important conversation, but it’s a different conversation from whether it is in your interest to respond to the census.
However, unless you are clear about who you are by identity, you may be grouped with a different race than your preference. That was why the individual discouraged his mother from checking every box. He wanted to make sure that if there were resources linked to her identity, those resources would be allocated to and benefit the community with which she primarily identified.
Featured Image provided under licensing with no changes made
Today we continue with our occasional series meant to answer the most frequently asked questions regarding the census. If you have a question or doubt about the census, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will consult the experts to get the answers. These questions were gathered through social media.
Question: “I am a citizen and I live with my boyfriend, who has DACA. If the Supreme Court approves ending DACA, should I include my boyfriend’s information in the census count of my household? I am afraid including him may have negative consequences for him.”
The DACA program, a deferred-action decision allowing temporary legal status to hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, was put in place by President Barack Obama in 2012. In 2017, the Trump administration announced it would phase out the program, alleging that it was illegal from the very beginning.
Several lawsuits argued that Trump´s planned termination of DACA violates federal law requiring certain procedures before major rules are changed, as well as equal protection and due process guarantees.
Federal courts issued nationwide injunctions blocking the administration´s plans to end DACA and forcing the continuation of program renewals. The Supreme Court took up the cases before lower courts had fully heard them, an unusual step. A hearing was held in November in front of the Supreme Court, which could issue its ruling at any time before June.
That means the final decision on DACA could come in the middle of census field operations, which start in remote areas of Alaska in January and continue through several phases up until the end of July.
More than 700,000 people in the United States have active DACA permits, and they often live in mixed-status families with others who have a variety of immigration situations or are native-born citizens. People may fear that they are putting family members in some kind of danger by naming them in the household´s census response.
But that is not so, said Daniel Sharp, legal director for the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, a leading organization helping young immigrants with DACA become aware of their rights under terms of the policy.
Sharp worries that DACA holders or their families won´t participate in the census due to the misconception that their name and other information could be disclosed to the Department of Homeland Security and used against them for potential immigration enforcement.
“There´s a two-part answer to that question,” Sharp said.
The first is that the Census Bureau has very strict laws about sharing personal information. “The confidential protection laws that apply to the census information are among the strongest that exist in our laws,” Sharp said. “The U.S. Census Bureau is prohibited from virtually all inter-agency information sharing.”
That means the Census Bureau can´t disclose the person´s name, their immigration status or any other information. It can only share “aggregated data,” meaning how many people are in a particular demographic group, for example, but cannot pass on any individual´s information to any other department of the government. “This is by law,” Sharp added.
The second answer to that question is that adding the DACA holder to a particular household´s census answer does not give the government any additional information it does not already have due to the person´s having applied for DACA.
“The federal government already has all this information,” the lawyer said. “Whatever risk of deportation the individual DACA holder has is independent of whether or not they participate in the census. They have given their information to the government when they applied and renewed their DACA. Even if they moved, the government could track their social security number and find where they work or live.”
Furthermore, the information given to the government by DACA holders is protected under terms of the 2012 policy stipulating that the government may not use the information for immigration enforcement unless the person poses a national security risk.
The issue itself is in litigation right now. The federal government is under a nationwide injunction to follow its original 2012 promise about not sharing or using DACA recipients’ private information for enforcement purposes against them or their family members unless certain circumstances exist, such as that the person poses a national security threat or has committed certain crimes.
Sharp says that adding DACA holders to the census responses in the household where they live is “desirable and encouraged. The information is safe, and it´s important to be counted.”
Sharp also recently emphasized that even in the case of an adverse Supreme Court decision on the DACA program, most of those affected would still have the right to defend themselves in court against a deportation order and are likely to be able to stay in the country for years, even in that worst-case scenario.
Activists and lawyers want to make sure that every DACA holder is counted in the census because even if they spend years battling to legalize their status in the long term, they have the right in the meantime to get the resources and services everyone else gets from the once-every-10-year population count.