Tag Archives: american community survey

Why Heritage is wrong on the new Census race/ethnicity question

Sorry this is long and rambly. I just want to get the main points down and I’m in the middle of other things. I hope it helps.

Mike Gonzalez, a Bush-era speech writer with no background in demography (not that there’s anything wrong with that), now a PR person for the Heritage Foundation, has written a noxious and divisive op-ed in the Washington Post that spreads some completely wrong information about the U.S. Census Bureau’s attempts to improve data collection on race and ethnicity. It’s also a scary warning of what the far right politicization of the Census Bureau might mean for social science and democracy.

Gonzalez is upset that “the Obama administration is rushing to institute changes in racial classifications,” which include two major changes: combining the Hispanic/Latino Origin question with the Race question, and adding a new category, Middle Eastern or North African (MENA). Gonzalez (who, it must be noted, perhaps with some sympathy, recently wrote one of those useless books about how the Republican party can reach Hispanics, made instantly obsolete by Trump), says that what Obama has in mind “will only aggravate the volatile social frictions that created today’s poisonous political climate in the first place.” Yes, the “poisonous political climate” he is upset about (did I mention he works for the Heritage Foundation?) is the result of the way the government divides people by race and ethnicity. Not actually dividing them, of course (which is a real problem), but dividing them on Census forms. (I hadn’t heard this particular version of why Trump is Obama’s fault — who knew?)

How will the new reforms make the Trump situation he helped create worse? Basically, by measuring race and ethnicity, which Gonzalez would rather not do (as suggested by the title, “Think of America as one people? The census begs to differ,” which could have been written at any time in the past two centuries).

Specifically, Gonzalez claims, completely factually inaccurately, that Census would “eliminate a second question that lets [Hispanics] also choose their race.” By combining Hispanic origin and race into one question — on which, as before, people will be free to mark as many responses as they like — Gonzalez thinks Census would “effectively make ‘Hispanic’ their sole racial identifier.” He is upset that many Latinos will not identify themselves as “White” if they have the option of “Hispanic” on the same question, even if they are free to mark both (which he doesn’t mention). Some will, but that is not because anyone is taking away any of their choices.

The Census Bureau, of course, because they always do, because they are excellent, has done years of research on these questions, including all the major stakeholders in a long interactive process that is scrupulously documented and (for a government bureaucracy) quite transparent. Naturally not everyone is happy, but in the end the trained demographic professionals come down on the side of the best science.

Race that Latino

The most recent report on the research I found was a presentation by Nicholas Jones and Michael Bentley from the Census Bureau. This is my source for the research on the new question.

First, why combine Hispanic with race? You have probably seen the phrase “Hispanics may be of any race” on lots of reports that use Census or other government data. The figure below is from the first edition of my book, using 2010 data, in which I group all 50 million Hispanics, and show the races they chose: about half White, the rest other race or more than one race (usually White and other race). Notice that by this convention Hispanics are removed from the White group anyway, just because we don’t want to have people in the same picture twice (“non-Hispanic Whites” is already a common construction).


The “may be of any race” language is the awkward outcome of an approach that treats Hispanic as an “ethnicity” (actually a bunch of national origins, maybe a panethnicity), while White, Black, Asian, Pacific Islander, and American Indian are treated as “races.” The distinction never really made sense. These things have been measured using self-identification for more than half a century, so we’re not talking about genetics and blood tests, we’re talking about how people identify themselves. And there just isn’t a major categorical difference between race and ethnicity for most people — people of any race or ethnicity may identify with a specific national origin (Italian, Pakistani, Mexican), as well as a “race” or panethnic identify such as Asian, or Latino. And now that the government allows people to select multiple races (since 2000), as well as answering the Hispanic question, there really is no good justification for keeping them separate. As you can see from my figure above, when we analyze the data we mostly pull all the Hispanics together regardless of their races. The new approach just encourages them to decide how they want that done, which is usually a better approach.

Of course, Asians and Pacific Islanders have been answering the “race” question with national origin prompts for several decades. There was no “Asian” checkbox in 2000 or 2010 (or on the American Community Survey). So they have been using their ethnicity to answer the race question all along — that’s because for some reason you just can’t get “Asian” immigrants, especially recent immigrants — that is, people from India, Korea, and Japan, Vietnam, and so on — to see themselves as part of one panethnic group. Go figure, must be the centuries of considering themselves separate peoples, even “races.” So, a new question that combines the more ethnic categories (Mexican, Pakistanis, etc.), with America’s racial identities (Black, White, etc.), just works better, as long as you let people check as many boxes as they want. This is what the “race” question looked like in 2014. Note there is no “Asian” checkbox:


As a general guide, the questionnaire scheme works best when (a) everyone has a category they like, and (b) few people choose “other.” That is the system that will yield the most scientifically useful data. It also will tend to match the way people interact socially, including how they discriminate against each other, burn crosses on each other’s lawns, and randomly attack each other in public. We want data that helps us understand all that.

Through extensive testing, it has become apparent that, when given a question that offers both race and Hispanic origin together, Latino respondents are much more likely to answer Hispanic/Latino only, rather than cluttering up the race question with “some other race” responses (often writing in “Hispanic” or “Latino” as their “other race”). If I read the presentation right, in round numbers, given the choice of answering the “race” question with “Hispanic,” in the test data about 70% chose Hispanic alone; about 20% chose White along with Hispanic, and 5% choose two races. In fact, the number of Latinos saying their only race is White probably won’t change much; the biggest difference is that you no longer have almost 40% of Latinos saying they are “some other race,” or choosing more than one race (usually White and Other) which usually just means they don’t see a race that fits them on the list.

In the end, the size of the major groups (Hispanics and the major races) are not changed much. Here’s the summary:


In fact, the only major group that will shrink is probably the non-group “multiracial” population, which today is dominated by Hispanics choosing White and “some other race.”

It’s really just better data. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s not eliminating the White race or discouraging assimilation of Hispanics. In short, keep calm and collect better data. We can fight about all that other stuff, too.

I’m sure Gonzalez doesn’t really think this will “eliminate Hispanics’ racial choices.” He’s dog-whistling to people who think the government is trying to reduce the number of Whites by not letting Hispanics be White. His statements are factually incorrect and the Washington Post shouldn’t have printed them. (I don’t know how the Post does Op-Eds; when I wrote one for the NY Times it was pretty thoroughly fact-checked.)


The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are about 2 million MENAs in the U.S. now, about half of them immigrants. This is a pretty small population, mostly Arab-speaking immigrants and their descendants, and more Christian (relative to Muslim) than the countries they left. This is especially true of the more recent immigrants, which don’t include a lot of Iranians (who aren’t Arab).

Census could have instead defined them by linguistic origin (Arab), and captured most, but they instead are going with country of origin, which is consistent with how the other race/ethnic groups are identified (for better or worse). Their testing showed that this measure captures most people with MENA ancestry, encourages them to identify their ancestry, cuts down on them identifying as White, and cuts down on them using “some other race.”

The difference is dramatic for those identifying as White, which fell from 85% to 20% in the test once a MENA category was offered. Would it be better if they just identified as White? I’m really not trying to shrink the count of Whites, I just think this is more accurate. I don’t care about the biology of Whiteness and whether Iranians are part of it, for example (and don’t ever say “Caucasian,” please), I care about the experience and identity of the people we’re talking about — as well as the beliefs of the people who hate them and those who want to protect them from discrimination. Counting them seems better than shoehorning them into a category most of them avoid when given the chance.

Here’s one version of the proposed new combined question, from that Census presentation:



Why not Mike Gonzalez to run Census? Unbelievably, he probably knows more about it than Trump’s education and HUD department heads know about their new portfolios.

But that’s just one odious possibility. It makes me kind of sick to think of the possible idiots and fanatics Trump might put in charge of the Census Bureau, after all this work on research and testing, designed to get the best data we can out of a very messy and imperfect situation.

What else would they do? Will they continue to develop ways to identify and count same-sex couples? The Supreme Court says they can get married, but there is no law that says the Census Bureau has to count them. What about multilingual efforts to reach immigrant communities? This has been a focus of Census Bureau development as well. And so on.

It is absolutely in Trump’s interest, and the interests of those who he serves (not the people who voted for him), to reduce the quality and quantity of social science data the government produces and enables us to produce.


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How do Black-White parents identify their children?

In 2015 the American Community Survey yields an estimate of 66,913 infants who have one Black parent and one White parent present in the household. (Either parent may be multiracial, too.)

What is the race of those infants? 73% of them were identified as both White and Black by whoever filled out the Census form.


(Note “other” doesn’t mean they specified “other,” it just means they used some other combination of races.)

These are children age 0 living with both parents, so it’s a pretty good bet they’re mostly biological parents, though some are presumably adopted. This is based on a sample of 507 such infants. If you pooled some years of ACS there is plenty to study here. Someone may already have done this – feel free to post in the comments.

That’s it, just FYI.

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Sexual minority counts

One of the big happenings at the Population Association of American (PAA) conference, just completed, was news of progress toward collecting better data on sexual diversity.

Photo by Philip Cohen from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo of PAA 2014 by Philip Cohen from Flickr Creative Commons

Call it weakness if you like, but in this area I am prone to viewing modernity as a march of progress from a dark past toward a half-full glass of bright future, with popular politics driving widening notions of human rights, motivating legal reforms, compelling the adoption of state bureaucracies to progressive social reality, and gradually incorporating us into a new world order more or less of our own creation.

That last part – about the bureaucracies incorporating the public – might not be the most complicated, but it is still pretty thorny. (And from here till the next subhead it gets technical.)

Good news bad news

The good news is that we have great new data collections coming along. Virginia Cain from the National Center for Health Statistics reported on their new sexual orientation question for the National Health Interview Survey, the largest federal health survey (the paper doesn’t seem to be available yet). This is already yielding important data on health disparities for sexual minorities, which is vital for policy responses to inequality.

Tim Vizard from the UK Office of National Statistics also reported on his agency’s new sexual identity question, which has been tested for several years on a few hundred thousand people each year. The latest numbers show 1.5% of adults self-identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. They get these low numbers because they ask a very simple, narrow question, only on sexual identity rather than sexual attraction or sexual behavior (see other studies for the range of estimates).* Importantly, less than 4% of the UK respondents are refusing to answer, and the question is not affecting overall response rates – two big fears in the statistical agencies that appear to be receding with these and other results. Here’s how they ask it (semi-confidentially, so that in theory a husband and wife taking the survey together could both tell the interviewer they’re gay without either knowing what the other said):


The other good news is that the U.S. Census Bureau is making great strides (which I first praised here), on several tracks. First, they are working on the same-sex married couple data from the American Community Survey (ACS). At present they only release aggregate estimates of same-sex couples, differentiating between those that are married versus cohabiting (explained here).

A big reason we don’t have more data is the bad news: In another paper (just an abstract is posted, but you can ask the authors for a copy), Census analysts Daphne Lofquist and Jamie Lewis reported on their investigation into possible errors in the same-sex couple data the ACS has collected.

The background is that in a 2011 paper (linked here) Census analysts showed that a lot of seemingly same-sex couples were actually different-sex couples in which someone’s sex was miscoded.** If even a tiny percentage of different-sex couples make a mistake on the form – say, 1-in-1000 – then you would roughly double the number of same-sex couples. And they do. The paper used name-gender associations to reveal that, for example, in Texas 29% of supposedly male-male couples had one partner with a name that was used by women 95% of the time in that state – probably women accidentally marked as male.

But that 95% cutoff is a conservative estimate of the error. In the new analysis Lofquist and Lewis went further and checked same-sex couples against their Social Security records to see what sex they had recorded there. The result was shocking: 72.5% of the same-sex couples had a member whose sex didn’t match the Social Security record. Yes, some people change their sex/gender, and some people’s Social Security Records are wrong, but not that many. The much more likely culprit is simply a tiny number of straight people mismarking the sex box (there are some other technical possibilities, too).

The great thing about just asking people their marital status and sex is that you can count gay and lesbian couples without changing anything about the form (such as asking about sexual identity or orientation). That’s what all the people want who think I’m backward for worrying about couple-sex gender terminology. “C’mon!” they say, “Why do you have to label marriage as homogamous or heterogamous – just call it marriage!” Maybe someday, but at the moment that approach is producing an accuracy-crushing level of noise in the same-sex couple data.

Fortunately, Census is also moving forward with other improvements to fix this. The most important change is probably to the basic relationship question, which will soon look something like this, with couples labeled “opposite-sex” or “same-sex,” and the gender-neutral “spouse” added beside “husband/wife.” This will allow Census to check those couples that are reported as married to see if their same/opposite relationship identification matches what they reported for their sexes:


If we end up with a question like that, which seems most likely (the Census testing and development is quite far along), then we should be able to much more reliably identify same-sex couples (both married and cohabiting).

We’ll get used to this

That proposed new relationship question has 17 categories. That’s a long way from these six, in 1960 (the whole series of Census forms is here):


That goes to show you that family diversity is a state of collective mind as well as a structural reality. Building bureaucratic bins into which we pour data describing the various aspects of our lives is one of the defining elements of modern life. Eventually, I am pretty sure people will become disciplined by the new bureaucratic reality, and identities will calcify around checkboxes. That’s life under the modern state. (Even most haters, once they realize the data is being collected, will want to answer the questions accurately so they don’t get counted as gay – although, just as a few people refuse to answer race questions, there will be holdouts.)

* Identifying transgender people is much more complicated and difficult. The number of required questions and categories increases as the size of the groups in question grows smaller. This is feasible for smaller, more targeted surveys, but not in the immediate cards for the big ones (see Gary Gates’s presentation at PAA for more on this).

** I’m pretty sure Gary Gates was the first person to identify this problem, but can’t remember which paper it was in.


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The Connection Between Unemployment and Unmarried Parents

Originally posted at TheAtlantic.com.

The states with more single men without jobs have higher rates of nonmarital births.


“Le berceau” by Berthe Morisot

The Census Bureau has a new report on nonmarital births. Based on the American Community Survey—the largest survey of its kind, and the only one big enough to track all states—the report shows that 35.7 percent of births in 2011 were to unmarried mothers.

Beneath the headline number, two patterns in the data will receive a lot of attention: education and race/ethnicity. I have a brief comment on both patterns.

The education patterns show a very steep dropoff in nonmarital births as women’s education increases. From 57 percent unmarried among those who didn’t finish high school to just nine percent among those who have graduated college.


Given the hardships faced by single mothers (especially in the United States), it looks like women with more education are making the more rational decision to avoid childbearing when they’re not married. And I don’t doubt that’s partly the explanation. But we need to think about marriage, education and childbearing as linked events that unfold over time. The average high-school dropout mother was 26, while the average college-graduate mother was 33. Delaying childbearing and continuing education are decisions that are made together, based on the opportunities people have. And completing more education increases both thelikelihood of marriage and the earning potential of one’s spouse.

So I think you could tell the story like this: Women with better educational opportunities delay childbearing, which increases their marriage prospects, and makes it more likely they will be married and financially better off when they have children in their 30s.

The differences in nonmarital birth rates between race/ethnic groups in the U.S. are shocking, from about two-thirds for black and American Indian women to 29 percent for whites and 11 percent for Asians.


This pattern is related to the education trend, naturally, but that’s not the whole story. One aspect of the story is race/ethnic geography of opportunity in this country. I’ve written before about the shortage of employed men available for women to marry, a particular expression of racial disparity first popularized by sociologist William Julius Wilson a quarter century ago.

Using the new numbers on nonmarital birth rates for each state from the Census report, I compared them to the male non-employment rate—specifically, the percentage of unmarried men ages 22-50 that are not currently employed. Here’s the relationship:


The states with more single men out of work have higher rates of nonmarital births. Single mother, meet jobless man.

My conclusion from these patterns is that unmarried parenthood is primarily a symptom of lack of opportunity, especially for education and employment. Surely that’s not the whole story. Maybe we should be persuading people to marry younger or shaming them into avoiding parenthood. But I think those approaches increase stigma more than they change behavior or improve wellbeing—Pew surveys show that 77 percent of people already say raising a family is easier if you’re married and only 12 percent of single people say they don’t want to marry. So who needs convincing? Meanwhile, if we addressed the problems of education and employment, is there any doubt family security and stability would improve, and with it the wellbeing of children and their parents?


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Alabama matriarchy (debunking The End of Men edition)

Hanna Rosin, in The End of Men, says sociologists have described the collapse of the manufacturing-based white working class. But we have missed how that event has had different effects on men and women.

In fact, the most distinctive change is probably the emergence of an American matriarchy, where the younger men especially are unmoored, and closer than at any other time in history to being obsolete.

This is from the chapter that was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine. In it, she describes Alexander City, Alabama — a small town devastated by the vanishing manufacturing sector — and nearby Auburn, the nearby success story. These two towns are two sides of the End of Men — and her description of them is basically fiction.

In this fantasy, Alexander City has a “new domestic reality: the woman paying the mortgage, the woman driving to work.” She writes:

“I was born in the South, where the men take care of the women,” [Charles Gettys, a laid off textile manager] said. “Suddenly, it’s us who are relying on the women. Suddenly, we got the women in control.” This year, Alexander City had its first female mayor.

That last sentence is Rosin giving us the context. That spooky feeling of women encroaching, taking over: A female mayor. To help her illustrate this drama, I checked the composition of the city council for Alexander City and confirmed it — there is also a woman on the council:

(In fact, Mayor Barbara Young does not fit the mold of the leading edge of rising women, as described by Rosin. Instead, she seems more like the old-fashioned female politician: a retired school principal and widow of a judge, she is the mother of two politicians, Circuit Judge Tom Young and council member Bill Young [second from right], the latter of whom, despite a 1990s federal felony conviction, is himself now running for mayor this year.)

Anyway, this collapse of man is not just limited to politics. “Wherever I went in town,” Rosin writes, “I met couples like the Gettyses, where the husband was stuck in place and the wife was moving ahead.”

And they’re not all formerly well-to-do. She highlights another couple that fits that description, the young, unmarried Shannon and Troy. She works part-time at Walmart, studies nursing at community college and works as an exotic dancer to feed their young son. Troy sleeps till 11, except for the four days last month when he did a little work. You can tell when he’s awake because cigarette smoke starts coming out from under the door of his room in their trailer. Troy is not the only deadbeat, unemployed man in town. According to Rosin, in fact, when he does the family’s shopping, all he sees are “aisles and aisles of dudes” at the store.

To check out this male vacuum for myself, I took a ride down the information superhighway to the American Community Survey’s 2006-2010 file (you need 5 years to get estimates for small areas).

Given her description of Troy as the typical Alexander City deadbeat, I was surprised to learn that 77% of Alexander City’s 20-something men are employed, compared with only 53% of women. In fact, the employment rate is higher for men at all ages, and the employed labor force is 53% male.

Alexander City is a poor place, there’s no doubt about that, and men’s earnings are especially low. More than 40% of men who work full-time all year earn less than $30,000, compared with 24% nationally. And there are, in fact, more women than men with jobs in the $30,000-$50,000 earnings range. But look at the top of Alexander City: 70% of the people earning more than $75,000 are men (which is where 15% of men are, compared with 7% of women). Overall, men’s full-time year-round median earnings are about $5,000 more than women’s.

Rosin quotes the local Southern Baptist leader, who’s also beating the “matriarchy” drum. “The real issue here is not the end of men, but the disappearance of manhood.” Literally. That probably explains why there’s also a woman among city government’s department heads:

What does that one woman do? She is in charge of the city’s Senior Nutrition program. And so it begins: the matriarchy’s pedicured toe creeps a little further up the ladder.

Matriarchal success

Down the road is the success story: Auburn, “the one city [in eastern Alabama] that got it right.” The secret?

Auburn has become the region’s one economic powerhouse by turning itself into a town dominated by women.

Wow – dominated by women. A strong claim. What’s the evidence? Well, she starts with the thing about young women earning more than young men (without even mentioning that only includes never-married, childless, full-time workers). In fact, Auburn is a “perfect reflection of the modern, feminized economy: a combination of university, service, government jobs, with a small share of manufacturing.”

She launches into an anecdote about a woman who “works in the female-dominated economic development department” (that department is actually directed by a man), and her “three best girlfriends … a consultant, a lawyer, and an engineer.”

That’s should be enough evidence to support the “dominated by women” claim. But, to bring it home, she asks, “Does any place still belong to the men”? And goes to a manufacturing plant, but even that has recently “tipped to 55 percent women.” (The city’s manufacturing industry employees are actually 32% female, says the Census.)

To see if “any place still belonged to the men” Rosin might have checked the Mayor and City Council…

…or the city government’s department heads…

…or, because it’s a university town, the university’s top administration and board of trustees:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say married couples in Auburn “belong to the men.” But a lot of their income does. As I showed previously, among married couples in Lee County, Alabama (home of Auburn), those with women earning none of family income outnumber the reverse by 32-to-1:

If Rosin really wanted to see what male domination looks like, she could have checked the Census data (5-year ACS file), and found out:

  • The city’s workforce is 54% male.
  • Women on average earn 71% of what men earn.
  • 70% of the people in management occupations are men.
  • Male managers earn an average 36% more than female managers.

Women are very sneaky, concealing their domination like that.

But seriously: I do believe there is an important and interesting story to tell about what happens to gender and families when economic fortunes decline asymmetrically by gender. I’d love to read that book.


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Hanna Rosin reality check, part whatever

In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Hanna Rosin’s cover story is adapted from her forthcoming book The End of Men. The question posed on the cover is, “Who Wears the Pants in This Economy?” (Spoiler alert: it’s men).

The article profiles married-couple families with unemployed or underemployed men depending on the incomes of wives working in the new economy. Her handful of anecdotes are accompanied by ominous images like this (her triumphant and resolved, him a shell of his former self):

NYT photo by Ann Weathersby

The anecdotes are fascinating and well told, but they are also grossly overplayed. In one interview, she reports:

When I talked with Patsy in the family room at their house, she forbade Reuben to come downstairs, because he can sometimes dominate conversations. She quarantined him on the second floor, and I caught glimpses of him carrying a basket of laundry.

For Rosin, all this points to a “nascent middle-class matriarchy” in which “It’s not hard to imagine a time when the prevailing dynamic in town might be female bosses shutting men out of the only open jobs.”

But is it too much to first imagine the way things actually are?

The families she profiles live a short drive from Auburn, Alabama. Auburn, she reports, is “a reflection of the modern, feminized economy: a combination of university, service and government jobs.” It is “an especially good place for women,” where “young, single, childless women in their 20s working full time have a higher median income than equivalent young men.” (On this grotesquely contorted statistic, also anchoring Liza Mundy’s book, see this post.)

But the couples in her story – where the women are wearing the pants – aren’t young, single, and childless. So, what is happening with real married couples? Auburn makes up about half the population of Lee County. So I took a look at the roughly 25,000 married couples in that county sampled by the American Community Survey in the years 2006-2010, restricted to those in which the wife is in the age range 20-54.

For each wife, I asked what percentage of the family’s total income comes from her earnings. Here is the distribution of wives’ earnings share:

In this county, wives earn 50% or more of all family income in 20.4% of families, compared with 19.5% in the country overall. In 32% of families the wife earns less than 10% of family income, a little less than the 35% average for the country. But: In 1% of married-couple families the wife earns all the money. The future is now. Look out!

This isn’t the whole story of the “nascent middle-class matriarchy.” But debunking The End of Men is a multi-post process (here’s the most recent), leading up to a presentation I’ll give (among many others) for a conference at Boston University in October.


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