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Did the last census overcount Asian Americans? It depends on where you look

Demonstrators hold signs about counting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. census during a 2019 protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., against the failed push to add a citizenship question by former President Donald Trump's administration.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators hold signs about counting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. census during a 2019 protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., against the failed push to add a citizenship question by former President Donald Trump's administration.

A new report is complicating an unusual finding from the U.S. Census Bureau's own report card on the accuracy of its 2020 head count of the country's population: a national overcount of Asian Americans.

The tallying of U.S. residents more than once at different addresses drives overcounting in census results, which — despite their flaws — are used to determine political representation, guide federal funding and inform policymaking and research across the United States.

The bureau estimates it had a net overcount rate of 2.62% for Asian Americans in the last census. That marked the first time Asian Americans had a statistically significant overcount at the national level since the bureau started trying to measure how well it tallied the country's Asian population, along with other racial groups, more than three decades ago.

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But since the bureau announced that overcount estimate for Asian Americans more than a year ago, many census watchers have been warning that it shouldn't be taken just at face value.

Now, new analysis suggests the last census may have actually undercounted, or left out of the tally, Asian Americans in some states, including Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming. That's according to a report recently released by Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC, the leading national advocacy group on census participation among Asian Americans.

Those potential errors, the report adds, may have been canceled out and masked by the overcounting of the Asian populations in states on the East and West Coasts, as well as in the South, resulting in a national net overcount rate for Asian Americans.

"What we long knew and suspected, and what our new report shows, is that that aggregate national number actually hides what's happening for the community," says Terry Ao Minnis, senior director of census and voting programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC. "When you look at lower geographic levels, you will see that Asian Americans are actually being missed, as well as being overcounted in different areas."

Focusing on just the national overcount of Asian Americans could feed into the "model minority" myth

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The report's findings — which come from comparing calculations based on 2020 census responses and the bureau's annual population estimates — offer a "useful first effort" in better understanding how well Asian Americans were counted, says Bill O'Hare, a demographer and former research fellow at the bureau.

"As we start to think about the 2030 census — and the bureau is already gearing up for that — this kind of information can be helpful in planning more constructive outreach efforts," O'Hare adds.

The bureau's own report card showed that for the 2020 census, the federal government's largest statistical agency continued a persistent trend of undercounting Black people, Latinos and Native Americans, while overcounting people who identified as white and not Latino. For Pacific Islanders, the bureau also found a national net overcount rate, but it was within the margin of error.

But the bureau did not break down over- or undercount rates by race below the national level. The agency has blamed the small sample size of its follow-up survey, which was also disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, the report by Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC tried to drill down on the quality of the census and found signs of potential county-level undercounting of Asian Americans in rural parts of the Midwest, Mountain West and South.

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These kinds of nuances at the local level should not be ignored, warns Paul Ong, an economist who heads the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge and has served as an adviser to the bureau.

Whenever any group is undercounted, the communities where they live face the risk of losing representation in government and missing out on their fair share of the estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding for health care, education, transportation and other public services.

"For the general public, there is this narrative that could formulate" around the national overcount of Asian Americans, Ong adds. "It goes along probably with the 'model minority' narrative that somehow there is some statistical result that says that there are no problems among Asian Americans and therefore we don't need to pay attention to them."

More attention is needed, Ong says, because of the diversity among the subgroups that make up the country's Asian American population. Differences in housing arrangements, income level, languages spoken at home and U.S. citizenship status, for example, can contribute to varying levels of census participation among Asian Americans, and they can be difficult to see in national aggregate numbers.

Did college students and anti-Asian racism contribute to a national overcount?

Ong offers two theories that he says could use further research: Were confusion over where to count college students and the rise of anti-Asian racism in the early months of the pandemic factors that led to the overcounting of Asian Americans at the national level?

In 2020, the onset of the pandemic forced many college students to flee their campuses just as nationwide counting for that census kicked off. And many Asian American students, who have the highest college enrollment rate of all racial and ethnic groups, may have been counted twice — both at their family home and at their campus residence, which was the address where they should have been counted, according to the bureau's residence criteria.

The pandemic also brought on more anti-Asian rhetoric, which Ong says may have spurred more people of Asian descent who previously did not check a box for an Asian category when answering the census race question to do so in 2020.

"Quite often what happens with people of color is that when they're attacked, they begin embracing their minority identity," Ong says. "So what the Census Bureau picked up as an overcount potentially of Asian Americans may be actually driven by shifts in the way people are defining themselves."

Disaggregated data about Asian Americans could provide a clearer picture

For Diya Basu-Sen — executive director of Sapna NYC, a Bronx-based community organization that supports low-income, South Asian immigrant women — any overcount of Asian Americans offers some relief after worries that COVID lockdowns and other restrictions that put an end to in-person census events and other outreach would lead to undercounting.

"It means that we were able to reach people in a pandemic where our communities were hit really hard and still people were completing the census, so I think that's a success," Basu-Sen says.

Asian Americans were likely overcounted in New York City, the Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC report estimates. But it remains unclear how well the census tallied the city's Asian subgroups, such as Bangladeshi Americans, Chinese Americans, and Indian Americans.

"When we talk about Asians, we talk about a monolith. And most often, unless you disaggregate that data, it really doesn't show the true picture," Basu-Sen says. "I'm sure if you look at more specific data, there are probably still communities that were undercounted or counted correctly."

Edited by Ben Swasey

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Hansi Lo Wang
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a correspondent for NPR reporting on voting.