Census data changes lead some to question multiracial population growth

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FILE – This April 5, 2020, photo shows an envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Data released by the U.S. Census Bureau this month suggests multiracial populations grew in almost every county in the nation. 

Cory Mihalik, statistical research consultant at the Missouri State Library, said changes in how the bureau coded and asked race and ethnicity questions for the 2020 Census leads him to question the true extent of minority population growth in the United States.

“Due to changes in how the questions were asked in the coding on the survey, the racial and ethnic reporting has changed pretty dramatically,” he said. “In a way, that’s not really statistically comparable. Whenever you see a rising diversity index, that could very well be true, or that could just be a result of how people are reporting, based on the question they were asked, and also, how the Bureau is coding.”

But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the way race is measured, collected and coded has changed almost every decade since the census first began. 

The 2020 Census Hispanic origin question contained the same three checkboxes that were included in the 2010 Census: “Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano,” “Puerto Rican,” “Cuban,” along with an additional “Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” checkbox.

Furthermore, example groups were revised to include the largest Hispanic origin populations, as to accurately represent the geographic diversity of the Hispanic and Latino category, according to the bureau.

“What I will say about the data that you’re seeing now is that the bureau has changed, not only how they asked those questions on race and ethnicity, but also how they coded those questions on race and ethnicity, which makes it much more common for people to report and for the bureau to code for multiracial groups,” Mihalik said. “That has altered the statistics in such a way that direct comparisons between 2010 and 2020 are really hard to make. It’s kind of an apples and oranges type-thing.”

The Census Bureau uses the diversity index (DI) to measure the probability of two people chosen at random being from different racial and ethnic groups, according to its website. 

The DI ranges between 0 and 1. While a value of 0 implies everyone in the population has the same racial and ethnic characteristics, a value close to 1 suggests almost everyone in the population has different racial and ethnic characteristics.

According to the Census Bureau, Jackson County, Missouri, maintained a diversity score of 53.6% in 2010, which gradually increased by 11% to 59.5% by 2020. The county has a higher DI than the state of Missouri, which has a DI of 40.8%, and the state of Kansas, which has a DI of 45.4%.

Out of 19 counties in the Kansas City region, Wyandotte County, Kansas, maintained the highest diversity score of 70.8%, a 27.7% difference from Jackson County’s score.

Anderson County, Kansas, maintained the lowest DI in the region, scoring 14%. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 92.6% of the county’s population identifies as White, while only .3% identifies as Black.

The only other county in the Kansas City region to have a Black population this low is Douglas County, Missouri, whose Black population, like Anderson County, only accounts for .3% of the population.

Despite sinking minority rates in areas like Douglas County, Missouri, data suggests urban settings have seen an increase in minority populations within the past decade, something Mihalik said staticians anticipated.

“Those diversity index numbers are, to generalize, always going to be higher for urban areas,” Mihalik said. “That’s just kind of always been a thing.”

However, he said citizens should be careful when analyzing diversity ratings because there’s a distinction to be made between individuals who self-identify as a minority and the ways in which the U.S. Census Bureau has changed its data collection methods over time.

“To quantify it [diversity] using the numbers they send out is hard,” Mahilak said. “What you could say is that more people are identifying as more diverse, and more people are identifying multiracially, whether or not that’s a societal change or a statistical change based on just the difference in question asking and coding,” Malihak said.

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