President Biden's White House is reviving a previously stalled review of proposed policy changes that could allow the Census Bureau to ask about people's race and ethnicity in a radical new way in time for the 2030 head count, NPR has learned.
First proposed in 2016, the recommendations lost steam during former President Donald Trump's administration despite years of research by the bureau that suggested a new question format would improve the accuracy of 2020 census data about Latinos and people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa.
The proposals also appear to have received the backing of other federal government experts on data about race and ethnicity, based on a redacted document that NPR obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The document lists headings for redacted descriptions of the group's "recommended improvements," including "Improve data quality: Allow flexibility in question format for self-reported race and ethnicity."
Stalling by Trump officials, however, sealed the fate of last year's census forms. 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.
That has raised concerns about the reliability of the next set of 2020 census results, which are expected out by Aug. 16 and face a tangle of other complications stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration's interference with the count's schedule and the bureau's new privacy protection plans. That detailed demographic data is used to redraw voting districts, enforce civil rights protections and guide policymaking and research.
The proposals, however, may be approved by the White House's Office of Management and Budget under the Biden administration, which has been calling to change how the government produces and uses data about people of color and other marginalized groups.
"We are continuing to review the prior technical recommendations and public comment, and the extent to which those recommendations help advance this Administration's goal of gathering the data necessary to inform our ambitious equity agenda," Abdullah Hasan, an OMB spokesperson, tells NPR.
Hasan did not provide a timeline for the current review of the proposed changes to the government's standards for data about race and ethnicity, which are set by OMB and must be followed by all federal agencies, including the bureau. OMB had previously planned to announce a decision in 2017, before the bureau had to finalize the 2020 census forms.
Other recommended changes include no longer officially allowing federal surveys to use the term "Negro" to describe the "Black" category. Another proposal would remove the term "Far East" from the standards as a description of a geographic region of origin for people of Asian descent.
This month, Biden's nominee for Census Bureau director, Robert Santos, pledged to lawmakers that, if confirmed, he would support one of the major recommendations, which would allow census forms to combine the separate race and Hispanic origin questions into one. A combined question, tests by the bureau's researchers show, 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.
"The census director doesn't have the authority to include any specific questions," Santos said in response to a question from Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "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."
An expert in designing surveys and currently the Urban Institute's chief methodologist, Santos has written about the need for questions and categories on census forms to "evolve and adapt to ensure everyone is fairly represented," including the Latinx population, one of the country's fastest-growing groups.
"Racial and ethnic categories are social constructs, defined and designed by those who have historically held positions of influence," Santos said in a 2019 blog post co-written with Jorge González-Hermoso, an Urban Institute research analyst. "The policy implications of using inadequate methods to collect data on identity are not trivial."
During the hearing, Santos suggested that if OMB ultimately approves the proposed policy changes, the bureau may not have to wait until the 2030 census to use a combined race-ethnicity question, which Santos said could potentially be incorporated into the bureau's ongoing American Community Survey.