Racial Gerrymandering (The Other Type)

Race, however nebulous a concept, is typically thought of as static among individual human beings. And yet, millions of Americans may wake up on Census Day, 2020 as a member of a different race–at least, on paper.

The proposed changes are meant to help align census definitions with the way Americans think about race. It’s an incredibly difficult, if not quixotic, task, due in no small part to the census’ historical ambiguity on the issue.

A little background

Since its inception in 1790, the United States Census has tracked racial data. The federal government uses this data to track health and environmental outcomes across populations, promote equal employment opportunities, to redistrict, and to inform federal policy with regard to civil rights.

Because the decennial census data are used for redistricting purposes and inform race-related social policy, you can count on a lot of advocacy and politics influencing every step of the process.

The Census Bureau collects data in accordance with the guidelines set for it by the Office of Management and Budget. This data is self-reported (though it has only been this way since 1960) and is acknowledged to adhere to social, rather than scientific, definitions.

Here’s what’s happening

A proposal by the Office of Management and Budget suggests creating a new racial category, MENA (Middle East and North Africa), and combining the ethnicity and race questions. Together, both changes could affect the way over 60 million Americans racially identify.

Under current guidelines, people with “origins” in the Middle East and North Africa are considered white. Critics, notably the Arab American Institute, claim this categorization is an inaccurate vestige of anti-Asian immigration law from the 19th century that led Middle Eastern immigrants to advocate for white status. Creating a separate racial category will allow for better data collection and confer upon “MENA-Americans” the same legal protections and privileges granted to other minority groups, they argue.

Hispanics, on the other hand, are not currently considered a race by the census, but rather an ethnicity. In fact, the only two options given to Americans for ethnicity are “Hispanic or Latino” or “Not Hispanic or Latino.” This has meant that Hispanics have been free to self-identify with any race they feel accurately describes them–a choice that has produced some confusion. Given that freedom, a slight but increasing majority of Hispanics have chosen to describe themselves as white (53% in 2010, up from 47.9% in 2000).

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But by collapsing the ethnicity and race questions into one general question, the next census may change that.

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Possible 2020 census question for race/Hispanic origin.

Having Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin appear next to other race options may encourage Hispanics who had previously considered themselves white to simply identify as “Hispanic”–after all, Spain is notably absent from the countries listed under “white.” As Mike Gonzalez writes for National Review:

The proposed census form defines “white” as “German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, etc.” For “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish,” the definition is “Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian, etc.”

Now, if you’re a Mexican American who has always considered yourself white because of your Spanish ancestry, you have one choice. You would never check a box designated for persons of German, Irish, or other origins north of the Pyrenees, because that doesn’t describe you. So the only choice you have is Hispanic.

Social definitions of race are neither static nor universal…nor immune to bureaucracy

This is far from the first time bureaucratic lines around race and ethnicity have been redrawn. Different federal policies and amendments thereto have led people to alter their racial and ethnic identities for hundreds of years in America.

The most obvious example would be the term “Hispanic,” which was first officially used in the 1970s. It’s more of a political and bureaucratic convenience than a valid anthropological grouping, and is rarely used outside of the United States. Yet today many Americans celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, listen to “Hispanic music”, and identify as Hispanics.

Another example would be Indian Americans’ historical flirtation with different racial categories. In the early 1900s, there were several court cases in which individual Indian Americans were determined to be white and non-white, depending on the case. In 1930 and 1940, the census listed “Hindu” as a race, but in 1970 Indians were instructed to self-report as “white.”

By 1980, that had changed again and Indian Americans were grouped under “Asian.” However in 1990, 10% of respondents with Indian origins self-identified as “white” and 5% self-reported as “black,” despite being specifically instructed to check “Asian” by the census. Non-Asian identification rose in generations removed from immigration. Among US-born South Asians, the portion that identified as white rose to 25% in 1990.

Allowing greater leeway in racial reporting has also yielded significant demographic changes.

A change to census policy beginning in 1960 allowed respondents to self-report race, rather than require verification from a local enumerator. As a result, the Native American population has since exploded in a way that can not be explained by birth rates or immigration. A 2000 change that allowed respondents to select multiple races furthered this trend.

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Taken from HUD website

Tilting at windmills

The best lesson is that race in America has nothing to do with biology and is as informed by politics as much as it informs them. Racial identities are more idiosyncratic and plastic than we tend to think of them as being. The census doesn’t–and cannot–tell us about the actual genealogical diversity of America; what it actually measures is our collective perception thereof. That perception and the metrics by which we assess it are constantly changing.

The great irony here is that the OMB and the Census Bureau are both causing and reacting to changes in perceptions of racial identity in America! In order to ask questions the way they think respondents want to hear them, they inadvertently place their thumbs on the scale. Even though racial and ethnic data are self-reported, they will always be influenced by the definitions put forth by the OMB.

Census Data Are Weird

For those of you with better things to do than scroll through Paul Krugman’s twitter feed, I have news: last Tuesday the Census Bureau released its annual report on Income and Poverty, and people are stoked.

Here’s the upshot: Median household income increased 5.4% from last year after nine years of general decline. It’s now only 1.6% lower than it was in 2007, the year before the recession, and 2.4% lower than its historic peak in 1999.

While Asian households didn’t see a significant increase, black, white, and Hispanic households did. Median household incomes increased in all regions of the country and, for the first time since the recession, real income gains are distributed beyond the top earners.

Sounds like great news! It might well be, but before you celebrate there are some things to note about these statistics. The following isn’t a refutation of the conclusion that the economy is improving. Rather, it’s an indictment of the statistics that lead us to such conclusions. Here are three things to consider:

  • Household income data aren’t all they’re cracked up to be

All statistics have limits, but median household income is particularly misleading in the wrong hands. For years now, economists and politicians have cited median household income data to paint grim pictures of the American economic landscape. While the story is nicer this year, the logic behind the choice to measure households, rather than individuals, is still suspect.

A positive or negative change in median household income doesn’t imply a similar change in individuals. That’s because the characteristics of households vary across time and population.

Average household size has decreased from 3.6 to 2.5 people since 1940. Demographic shifts can also affect household incomes, because average household sizes differ between races.

Another limitation of household income data is that individuals aren’t equally distributed among households of different income levels. There are far more individuals–let alone workers–in the top quintile of income-earning households than the bottom. People who have vested interests in portraying an economically lopsided America tend to cite household data for this reason, without noting this.

Households expand and contract as more people are able to afford their own places. This can strangely cause median household income to rise while people are making less money. For example, if I were demoted and had to move in with my mom because I was now making half as much money, the median household income would increase as our two households merged, despite less aggregate income for the individuals involved.

The same works in reverse. When I started making enough money, I moved out of my mom’s house. Even though our combined income was greater, median household income fell.

Speaking of which…

  • Millennials are living at home longer and in greater numbers than previous generations

Fully 32% of 18-34 year-old Americans live with their parents, making it the most common living arrangement for that group. There are a couple of reasons for this: higher unemployment among young adults; an accompanying delay in or aversion to marriage; and a changing ethnic makeup of America, among others.

While Millennials are more likely to live with mom and dad, we’ve also become the largest generation in the workforce. A larger part of the workforce consolidating in fewer households could explain part of the rise in household income.

This probably isn’t too big of a factor, but since we’re measuring households it’s worth mentioning that about a third of people ages 18-34 are living with mom and dad.

  • “Low-income households” and poor people aren’t necessarily the same

This is a big one. Part of the elation about the Census data comes from the fact that lower-earning households have seen more of a bump in income than they have in recent years.

The problem is income isn’t the same as wealth. It’s closer to a derivative of wealth, like a stillframe is to a film. It’s a simplistic method of gauging standard of living, hobbled by the fact that it doesn’t consider government transfers of money, assets, or liabilities. Economists would probably argue that consumption data are more informative indicators of standard of living.

A wealthy elderly couple and a part-time minimum-wage earner might both be in the lowest income quintile in a given year. That doesn’t mean their standards of living are similar.

Rising incomes of the lowest earners might indicate lots of things: for example, that people are being forced back into the labor market after retiring. As I’ve noted here before, most poor households have no income earners, according to data from the Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco. Unless the rate of employment among the poor grew at the same time, there could be reason to believe that the increase in low-earning households is due to something other than increased income of “the poor.”

Another common assumption is that the households’ positions within income brackets are stagnant, as if we lived in a world without job churn. The households in the bottom 10% of income earners this year aren’t necessarily the same ones that were there in 2008.

We’re used to seeing data based on groups of income earners, not individuals. That’s how the Census reports. However, studying individuals tells a more relevant story.

The United States Treasury tracked individuals’ tax returns from 1990 to 2005. They found that over half of people in the bottom quintile as of 1990 had moved to a higher quintile by 2005.

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The Census statistics measure exactly what they measure: nothing more. That doesn’t mean that information is useless, it just means we shouldn’t lose our heads over it. Extrapolating a verdict about America’s economic health from median household income data exposes us to opportunities to make mistakes based on a deceptively simplistic figure.

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Don’t mistake my skepticism of stats for pessimism about the American economy. Where long-term trends in the American economy are concerned, optimism is never a bad idea.