Biden Administration Exploring Policy Changes To Make US Census More Accurate and Inclusive of Race and Ethnicity

President Biden and the U.S. Census Bureau are hoping to revive a previously proposed policy that would allow the 2030 survey to ask more accurate questions about race and ethnicity — and by extension, improve the quality of demographic data acquired and used toward policymaking, voting districts, and enforcing civil rights protections.

According to an NPR report by Hansi Lo Wang, policy changes to the Census were first proposed in 2016 by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) after years of research by the Census Bureau suggested that a more comprehensive format would improve the accuracy of data on Latinos and people with ethnic roots in the Middle East or North Africa.

Based on redacted documents provided to NPR through the Freedom of Information Act, Wang reported that other federal government experts on data about race and ethnicity supported policy changes to the Census survey — but despite that support and the inherent benefits of more accurate data, discussions on any policy change for the U.S. Census crumbled under the Trump administration.

“With no public decision by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, the Bureau was forced to stick with previously used racial and ethnic categories and a question format that, the agency’s studies show, a growing number of people find confusing and not reflective of how they identify,” Wang reported.

The next set of 2020 Census results is expected to be published on August 16. However, due to the Trump administration’s interference with the Census count schedule and complications from the COVID-19 pandemic, Wang reported that experts are concerned about the reliability of the demographic data. More perniciously, Wang noted that this potentially inaccurate data would impact voting districts, policymaking and research, and how civil rights protections are enforced until the next Census in 2030.

Fortunately, the Biden administration appears to be reviving discussions about a Census overhaul. In addition to allowing people to self-identify their ethnicity, Wang reported that other recommendations include language standardization, removing antiquated and offensive terminologies like “Negro” to describe Black people, and “Far East” for people of Asian descent.

“We are continuing to review the prior technical recommendations and public comment,” Abdullah Hasan, OMB spokesperson, told NPR. “The extent to which those recommendations help advance this Administration’s goal of gathering the data necessary to inform our ambitious equity agenda.”

In early July 2021, Biden’s nominee to head the Census Bureau, Robert Santos, pledged to support the recommended changes to the survey if confirmed by the Senate, including combining “the separate race” and “Hispanic origin” questions into one.

Citing Bureau research, Wang reported that combing those two frequently separated questions “would help the Bureau address the problem of increasingly more people leaving the race question unanswered or checking off the box for ‘Some Other Race’ — the third-largest racial group reported in 2000 and 2010.”

During his confirmation hearing on July 15, Santos said, “the census director doesn’t have the authority to include any specific questions, but I can use my own personal perspective as a Latino and use my research experience and my leadership position to work with OMB to make sure that the proper attention is given to that specific issue.”

Santos also suggested that the Bureau may not necessarily have to wait until the 2030 Census to implement a combined race-ethnicity question. Should OMB approve the proposed policy changes, Santos said the policy change could be incorporated more immediately into the Bureau’s ongoing American Community Survey, a regional survey that helps local officials, community leaders and businesses understand demographic changes in their district.

An expert in survey design, and the current chief methodologist at the think tank Urban Institute, Santos has written extensively about overhauling, evolving and adapting the Census to ensure representation is fairly measured, particularly the Latino population — one of the fastest-growing demographics in America.

“Racial and ethnic categories are social constructs, defined and designed by those who have historically held positions of influence,” Santos wrote in a 2019 blog post at the Urban Institute. “The policy implications of using inadequate methods to collect data on identity are not trivial.”