Race, ethnicity, ancestry – and which one people identify with

I have followed an interesting urban sociology listserv discussion involving a recent New York Times editorial by Herbert Gans where he notes several mistakes the Census Bureau makes in measuring race and ethnicity. It strikes me that sociologists and others really want to measure three different things and then a fourth piece of information we could gather would help us better understand which three traits are more important. Here is what we might measure:

  1. Race. Largely based on skin color in the United States. A long history of black and white with groups in between.
  2. Ethnicity. Largely based on cultural or national groups. Has become more prominent in recent decades with the Census moving in 2000 to a separate question about Hispanic or Latino ethnicity or discussions about a Middle Eastern or Northern African background.
  3. Ancestry. This could align with the two categories but not necessarily. This typically refers a country or people group in a family lineage.
  4. In addition to the three pieces of information, shouldn’t we ask which category is most important to people? It is true that race in the United States has dominated social relations for centuries. At the same time, race on its own is simplistic. A few examples might suffice. A white Jewish person with ancestry in Russia. A non-white Brazilian with ancestry in Africa. A Chinese person from Singapore. A white person from Tennessee who says their ancestry is American (though it may be in Wales and Germany). Different people will see different traits as more essential to their own understanding as well as how they would like others to see them.

Of course, having four categories like this would complicate the study of trends and groups. But, as more people marry across groups and new groups continue to come to the United States, we need a more nuanced understanding of how these traits come together and matter to people.

“The most detailed map of the United States’ racial diversity”

Check out a new map that shows population by race and ethnicity at a very detailed level: SocScape. Curbed provides a brief description of the project:

Adapting a grid-charting system used for mapping the craters of Mars for NASA, Stepinski and his postdoctoral researcher Anna Dmowska, have created the most detailed map of the United States’ racial diversity—ever. The interactive tool displays enormous volumes of census information through more granular units, each representing 323 square feet. The result is a visual presentation that’s more accurate and useful to analysts interested in exploring geographic shifts in population and racial diversity.

Stepinski is already picking up on trends in the data from the 1990, 2000, and 2010 censes: Generally, white neighborhoods have become more diverse, Asian and Hispanic populations appear to be concentrating in distinct geographic pockets, while largely black neighborhoods have not increased in diversity.

Here is a view of much of the Chicago metropolitan region:

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SocScape, Chicago MSA, 2010 Census by race and ethnicity

From this image, it looks like an improved version of the racial dot maps as it has more geographic specificity. The tool also has some added data layers – here is the same region with the 1990 race and ethnicity data:

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SocScape, Chicago MSA, 1990 Census by race and ethnicity

Quite a bit of change over a twenty year stretch with increasing numbers of non-white residents living in the suburbs.

The ongoing politics of the 2020 Census

The dicennial Census is not just a counting exercise; it is a political matter as this commentary suggests.

According to recent documents from the Census Bureau and the Government Accountability Office, the bureau plans to substantially cut back on door-to-door surveying and, instead, use the internet, the Post Office and other means to determine who is living where.

The bureau thinks the 2020 survey will cost $5.2 billion less than the last one (an estimate the GAO questions), but the accuracy could be called into question. There will also likely be worries about fraud because many of the conclusions will be drawn through “imputations” — educated guesses.

In fact, fraud could affect the House of Representatives elections for years to come if someone isn’t watching.

During a recent hearing before the House Oversight Committee, which maintained control over the Census Bureau after the Obama-Emanuel caper, a key technology officer for the 2020 decennial admitted that a fraud prevention system won’t be fully in place until just a few months before the polling starts.

If the Census Bureau – often led by sociologists and other social scientists who have expertise in collecting and analyzing data – is fraudulent because certain parties don’t like the result, what can be left alone?

Sampling and estimation alone does not have to be a problem. Just because the Census can’t reach everyone – and they have certainly tried at points – doesn’t mean that there is room for fraud. If done well, the estimates are made based on accurate samples – meaning they generally match the proportions of the total population – and responsible people reporting on this data will always note that there is not 100% certainty in the data.

The clustering of wealthy counties in the United States

With recently released data, the Census Bureau describes the patterns in the wealthiest counties in the United States:

A Census Bureau report on the “highlights” of the data released yesterday noted that the nation’s wealthiest counties are disproportionately in the corridor of territory that runs from Virginia and Maryland and then north along the East Coast.

“Seventy-seven counties had a median household income within the highest range ($81,129 to $125,900),” said the “highlights” report. “Forty-two of these high-income counties were located in the Northeast region, Maryland and Virginia.”…

Nationwide, the median household income in 2015 was $55,755, according to the Census Bureau. That means the local median household income in each of the nation’s three richest counties—all of which are Washington suburbs in Northern Virginia—are more than twice the national median household income.

Of the Top 20 richest counties in the nation, nine are suburbs of the city that serves as the seat of a federal government

It then wouldn’t be too hard to look for patterns in other demographic data across these wealthier counties. One marker – noted in this article – is that many of these wealthier counties are suburban. But, I’m guessing these counties are also well educated and largely white.

It would also be interesting to see how those concerned with inequality would deal with county level data. Many American counties don’t have a lot of control compared to municipalities or states. There can be a lot of variation within counties, both really wealthy and really poor pockets. Usually, recommendations about poverty or affordable housing are made at a municipal or regional level. Is there a way to leverage counties to address particular issues?

Local note: it appears that three Chicago area counties – Lake, DuPage, and Kendall – fit into the highest range in the data. See page 3 of the Census highlights.

Push continues to add Middle Eastern race/ethnicity to Census

This project has been in the works for at least a few years and now the White House is joining the effort to add a Middle Eastern race/ethnicity to government forms:

Under current law, people from the Middle East are considered white, the legacy of century-old court rulings in which Syrian Americans argued that they should not be considered Asian — because that designation would deny them citizenship under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. But scholars and community leaders say more and more people with their roots in the Middle East find themselves caught between white, black and Asian classifications that don’t fully reflect their identities…

On Friday, the White House Office of Management and Budget advanced the proposal with a notice in the Federal Register, seeking comments on whether to add Middle Eastern and North African as a separate racial or ethnic category, which groups would be included, and what it should be called.

Under the proposal, the new Middle East and North African designation — or MENA, as it’s called by population scholars — is broader in concept than Arab (an ethnicity) or Muslim (a religion). It would include anyone from a region of the world stretching from Morocco to Iran, and including Syrian and Coptic Christians, Israeli Jews and other religious minorities.

But the Census Bureau, which has been quietly studying the issue for two years, also has gotten caught up in debates about some groups — such as Turkish, Sudanese and Somali Americans — who aren’t included in that category. Those are issues the White House is trying to resolve before adding the box on 2020 census forms.

This is a good reminder of how social science categories can develop: through a lot of effort. There are social changes to account for here: how groups understand themselves changes over time. In this particular context, immigrating to the United States and facing particular challenges and opportunities leads to groups that wouldn’t necessarily group themselves together to now desire such a thing. Does the Middle East as Americans often understand it line up with how the region is understood elsewhere (let alone in that part of the world)? There are politics involved: who gets to define such groups? How is the data used? There are measurement issues: who would count in such a category? What are the boundaries? Is it a racial category or ethnicity? How many racial/ethnic categories are needed to understand the world?

All that said, the category of white – typically based on skin color – is very broad and often not very useful considering the social changes in the United States in the last few decades.

Middle-class incomes have biggest year to year rise – with a catch

New data suggests middle-class incomes rose in 2015:

The incomes of typical Americans rose in 2015 by 5.2 percent, the first significant boost to middle-class pay since the end of the Great Recession and the fastest increase ever recorded by the federal government, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

In addition, the poverty rate fell by 1.2 percentage points, the steepest decline since 1968. There were 43.1 million Americans in poverty on the year, 3.5 million fewer than in 2014…

The 5.2 percent increase was the largest, in percentage terms, ever recorded by the bureau since it began tracking median income statistics in the 1960s. Bureau officials said it was not statistically distinguishable from five other previous increases in the data, most recently the 3.7 percent jump from 1997 to 1998.

Rising incomes are generally good. But, note the catch in the third paragraph cited above: officials cannot say that the 5.2% increase is definitively higher than several previous increases. Why not? The 5.2% figure is based on a sample that has a margin of error of at least 1.5% either way. The data comes from these Census instruments:

The Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement was conducted nationwide and collected information about income and health insurance coverage during the 2015 calendar year. The Current Population Survey, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is conducted every month and is the primary source of labor force statistics for the U.S. population; it is used to calculate the monthly unemployment rate estimates. Supplements are added in most months; the Annual Social and Economic Supplement questionnaire is designed to give annual, national estimates of income, poverty and health insurance numbers and rates.

According to the report (page 6), the margin of error for the percent change in income from 2014 to 2015 is 1.6%. Incomes may have risen even more than 5.2%! Or, they may have risen at lower rates. See the methodological document regarding the survey instruments here.

The Census has in recent years moved to more frequent reports on key demographic measures. This produces data more frequently. One of the trade-offs, however, is that these estimates are not as accurate as the dicennial census which requires a lot more resources to conduct and is more thorough.

A final note: it is good that the margin of error is hinted at in the article on rising middle-class incomes. On the other hand, it is mentioned in paragraph 12 and the headline clearly suggests that this was a record year. Statistically speaking, this may or may not be the case.

Chicago’s loss of nearly 3,000 residents in 2015 is an estimate

Chicago media were all over the story this week that Chicago was the only major American city to lose residents in 2015. The Chicago Tribune summed it up this way:

This city has distinguished itself as the only one among the nation’s 20 largest to actually lose population in the 12-month stretch that ended June 30.

Almost 3,000 fewer people live here compared with a year earlier, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, while there’s been a decline of more than 6,000 residents across the larger metropolitan area.

Chicago’s decline is a mere 0.1 percent, which is practically flat. But cities are like corporations in that even slow growth wins more investor confidence than no growth, and losses are no good at all.

The last paragraph cited above is a good one; 3,000 people either way is not very many and this is all about perceptions.

But, there is a larger issue at stake. These population figures are estimates. Estimates. They are not exact. In other words, the Census Bureau doesn’t measure every person moving in or leaving for good. They do the best the can with the data they have to work with.

For example, on May 19 the Census released the list of the fastest growing cities in America. Here is what they say about the population figures:

To produce population estimates for cities and towns, the Census Bureau first generates county population estimates using a component of population change method, which updates the latest census population using data on births, deaths, and domestic and international migration. This yields a county-level total of the population living in households. Next, updated housing unit estimates and rates of overall occupancy are used to distribute county household population into geographic areas within the county. Then, estimates of the population living in group quarters, such as college dormitories and prisons, are added to create estimates of the total resident population.

If you want to read the methodology behind producing the 2015 city population figures, read the two page document here.

So why doesn’t the Census and the media report the margin of error? What exactly is the margin of error? For a city of Chicago’s size – just over 2.7 million – couldn’t a loss of 3,000 residents actually be a small gain in population or a loss double the size? New York’s gain of 55,000 people in 2015 seems pretty sure to be positive regardless of the margin of error. But, small declines – as published here in USA Today – seem a bit misleading:

I know the media and others want hard numbers to work with but it should be made clear that these are the best estimates we can come up with and they may not be exact. I trust the Census Bureau is doing all it can to make such projections – but they are not perfect.