Simpler 1990 Census Form Upsets Asian-Americans

Times Staff Writer

Worried that proposed changes in the 1990 census form might lead to an inaccurate count of Asian ethnic groups in the United States, Asian-American legislators and political groups have banded together in recent weeks in an attempt to force the U.S. Census Bureau to revise its plans.

In a meeting Monday between the two sides in San Francisco, bureau officials held firm to their intention to use a new form that would ask Asians to identify themselves as “Asians and Pacific Islanders,” but that would allow them to write in their ethnic group if they wished.

Asian leaders have pushed for a return to the bureau’s 1980 form, which listed nine major Asian ethnic groups--a system they believe will bring a more accurate count.


At stake in the battle, Asian leaders say, is the potential loss of millions of dollars in social service funding and important demographic research, both of which rely on census figures. Census Bureau officials counter that such losses would not occur and add that their plans are justified as cost-cutting measures. They also said that tests of the new form have shown no difference in accuracy.

Under pressure from the Asian community, the bureau agreed in March to scuttle plans to perform only a partial count of Asians and instead will hand-count every census form returned by Asian-Americans. However, Asian leaders were not satisfied, and the stalemate has forced them to take their fight to Congress.

“The Census Bureau has gone as far as it will go,” Henry Der, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, said after the meeting. “We have to go to a higher authority.”

Census officials are refusing to yield on their altered 1990 form because they believe that their 1980 form had flaws in its Asian section that required extensive corrections. “We feel that the new short form has solved many of those problems,” said Patricia Johnson, a demographic statistician with the bureau’s Ethnic and Racial Statistics Program.

The 1980 census form contained a section identifying nine Asian and Pacific Islander groups--Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, Samoan and Guamanian. Asian ethnics who did not fall into any of those groups had the option of writing their nationality in a section marked “other.”

But census officials said that misuse of the form led to a number of problems. Although the “other” category was reserved for use mainly by Asian groups not identified on the printed form, some Americans mistakenly used the form to describe their own ethnic background. In some cases, ethnic whites used the category to identify their Polish or Greek backgrounds. Some blacks from Jamaica and the West Indies also used the category.

In other cases, Johnson said, Cambodian, Thai and other Southeast Asian immigrants who should have written their nationality in the “other” category instead crossed out the “Vietnamese” category and wrote their nationality beside it. But because the form was tallied electronically, they were all registered as Vietnamese.

Because the bureau was forced to spend extra time and manpower making corrections, officials decided to develop a new form that would avoid similar mistakes. The result was a new Census Bureau plan to have all Asians simply check a box labeled “Asian and Pacific Islander” on the 1990 form.

While bureau officials decided to allow Asians to indicate their nationality in a write-in section, the officials decided not to tabulate every write-in form. Instead, they planned to take their 1990 census count of Asian ethnic groups based on only 10% of the forms handed in by Asian-Americans.

Asian community leaders immediately voiced concerns that those plans would lead to a major under-count of Asians in the United States. The reason, they said, was that many in the Asian community do not view themselves as Asians, but rather as Chinese, Japanese and other distinct ethnic groups.

“We are not homogeneous,” said Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Sacramento), who authored a bill to force the Census Bureau to return to the use of its 1980 form. “To us, the differences are obvious, but obviously not to the bureau.”

Some Asian leaders also view the Census Bureau’s decision to lump all Asians under one heading as an abrupt end to a longstanding symbolic acknowledgment of the contributions made by certain ethnic groups..

According to Der, the bureau’s attempt to use the general “Asian and Pacific Islander” heading could lead to an under-count of 5% to 10%.

“We believe that if people see their individual group on the form, they would easily identify themselves,” he said.

The resulting confusion, Asian community leaders said, might affect the funding that Asian groups receive for social programs. For example, Der said, there is a greater need for English-language education among Chinese-Americans than among Filipino-Americans. But if Chinese-Americans were confused by the 1990 census forms and only filled out the general “Asian and Pacific Islander” category, their numbers would appear smaller and could reduce the amount of social program funds earmarked for them.