Posted on April 7, 2020

2020 Census: What’s at Stake for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

Tim Lau, Brennan Center, 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.


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.

{snip} 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.


{snip} 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.


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.