Frequently Asked Questions and Answers U.S. Census & Proposed MENA Category | PAAIA

Frequently Asked Questions and Answers U.S. Census & Proposed MENA Category

What is the Census?

The U.S. Census is a count of everyone in the United States – in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Island Areas. It is mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution to take place every 10 years.

Why is the Census important?

The data collected by the Decennial Census determines the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives and is also used to distribute billions in federal funds to local communities. The information you provide is combined with responses provided by your neighbors and other households across the country, to provide summary statistical data that are used by various local, state, federal agencies, businesses, and non-governmental organizations.

Are my answers confidential? 

Yes. Your responses are protected by law (Title 13, U.S. Code, Section 9). All Census Bureau employees have taken an oath to protect confidentiality and are subject to a jail term, a fine – or both – for disclosing any information that could identify a respondent or household.

How does the Census classify race and ethnicity?

The racial classification used by the Census adheres to guidelines established by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB requires five minimum categories on race (White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander) and two categories on ethnicity (Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino).The Census Bureau must adhere to these standards.

The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in the United States and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically. In addition, it is recognized that the categories of race include racial and national origin or sociocultural groups.

How does the Census Bureau count Iranian Americans?

Currently, federal data on Iranian Americans is not derived from the Decennial Census but rather from the question of ancestry, which is collected through the annual American Community Survey (ACS). Data on Iranian ancestry from the annual ACS is available on the Census Bureau’s American Factfinder website.  The ACS is an ongoing statistical survey by the U.S. Census Bureau sent to a small percentage of the population on a rotating basis throughout the decade.

Does the ACS undercount Iranian Americans?

According to the 2010 ACS, there is an estimated 463,552 people of Iranian heritage living in the United States.  The actual number is believed by some to be at least twice as large.  Like other ethnic groups, the number of Iranian Americans has historically been underrepresented in Census data.  The underrepresentation can be attributed to the lack of participation in the ACS as well as the method used by the Census Bureau to obtain such information.  For example, although the ACS produces estimations on ancestry, it covers only a sample population of 3 million individuals per year (about 12.5% of the total population every five years).  Unlike the ACS, the Decennial Census reaches every household and has no margin of error.

2010 Write-In Campaigns

As part of its 2010 Census outreach, and reflecting the limitations of the racial and ethnic options on the Decennial Census form, PAAIA helped launch the Iranians Count Census Coalition. The coalition encouraged Iranian Americans to check the “Some Other Race” box and write in Iranian or Iranian American. Similar write-in campaigns were simulated by other communities from the Middle Eastern and North African regions.

The record number of write-in campaigns demonstrated to the Census Bureau the importance of ancestry or ethnic identity beyond race, as well as the disconnect that many of these communities feel with the method of classification used in the Decennial Census.  As a result of these and other efforts, the Census Bureau has decided to test a new Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) category as part of its mid-decade research for possible inclusion in the 2020 Census.

What is the MENA category?

The MENA category is based on a regional classification that includes a number of Arab and North African countries as well as Iran and Israel. This classification is used by academic, business, humanitarian, international and non-governmental organizations.

The Census Bureau’s working MENA classification includes individuals who have ethnic origins or descent, roots, or heritage from amongst 19 countries in the Middle East and North Africa.  The Census Bureau decided to identify the 3 largest Middle Eastern groups and 3 largest North African groups to list as an example on the test write-in question.

Will a MENA category keep Iranians hidden?

No.  The MENA category is part of 2015 combined pilot test question on race and ethnicity where respondents have an opportunity to self-identify their race, ethnicity, or national origin. It will consist of a “Middle Eastern or North African” check box, following a space below for respondents to write in their specific ethnicity or origin.   Individuals who write-in any variation of Iranian or Persian will be classified by the Census Bureau as individuals of Iranian ethnicity/origin.

Will MENA category change the race designation of Iranians?

No. Under current government guidelines for race classification, people of MENA origin are automatically designated as “White.”  However, the test question was specifically designed to allow for flexibility so that individuals can list themselves the way they want to be identified. People may choose to report more than one race group.  In addition, people of any race may be of any ethnic origin.

How would the MENA category help us get a more accurate count of Iranian Americans?

A count of the Iranian American community through the MENA category on the Census (which goes out to every U.S. resident) rather than through the American Community Survey (which only goes out to a sub sample of the population) will help increase the chances of a more accurate count of the Iranian American community.   For the first time in U.S. history, the Census Bureau is considering listing Iranian on the Decennial Census.  This could help incentivize individuals of Iranian ancestry to include their information on the form.

Ethnicity or National Origin?

As Iranian Americans, we may question the use of “ethnicity” as a marker of our identity in the United States since we consist of distinctive ethno-religious subgroups in Iran. However, the common experience of immigrant groups has provided the basis for an ethnic membership based on symbols of Iranian culture such as food, holidays, etiquette, and values. These shared cultural symbols serve as criteria for Iranian ethnic membership outside the homeland (as well as for generations born in the U.S.), regardless of how stringently they were shared back in Iran.

Why won’t the Census have separate questions on ethnicity/ancestry?

PAAIA supports the inclusion of a separate question on ethnicity/ancestry on the Decennial Census. As highlighted above, the Census Bureau faces certain legal and political restrictions under OMB guidelines that it must adhere to.  In 2007, the Census Advisory Committee (CAC) rejected recommendations that an ancestry question be included in the uniform Decennial Census.  PAAIA will continue to work with the Census Bureau, our MENA partners, and other communities in ensuring that the Census Bureau fulfills its mission of counting all Americans.

Why is it important to have an accurate count of Iranian Americans?

  • Funding: Iranians may be able to receive funding for community-specific work.
  • Political Influence: Elected officials target ethnic constituencies to solicit their feedback and votes.
  • Public Service: Some local, state and national organizations are required to provide services that address the needs of a specific ethnic and minority community (i.e. Persian speaking nurses).
  • Civic Uses: Ethnic organizations depend wholly on ancestry data to identify, locate and mobilize their constituencies. Civil rights agencies also require ancestry data to monitor discrimination based on national origin.
  • Research Uses: Social scientists, journalists and other researchers rely on census and community survey data to study ethnic population groups, demographic trends, and economic and educational mobility.

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