Advocates worry housing issues may lead to an Asian-American census undercount

Obtaining a full count is crucial because census data is used to decide how $675 billion in federal funds is distributed each year.

A simulated Non Response Follow-Up interview in Glendale, California in March 2016, in preparation for the 2020 census.Lee Roth / via

Mary Anne Foo was working with youth at risk of dropping out of school about 15 years ago when she first caught a glimpse of how the housing crisis was affecting Asian Americans.

The students were smart, she recalled, but many had either been in the juvenile justice system or were flunking their classes. She later learned that their poor school performance was in part a result of frequent absences due to a reason they were embarrassed to admit: Every 30 days, their families would move to different motels that were often farther and farther away from their schools.

While living in a motel is ultimately more expensive than renting an apartment, many families choose them because they don’t require a security deposit or pre-paying first and last month's rent, said Foo, executive director of the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance.

“It’s hard to come up with that much cash when you’re thinking, ‘Should we feed everybody or do we need to save a big amount?’” she said.

She has seen more people in such living situations as housing costs have skyrocketed, she said, part of a growing trend of Asian Americans in nontraditional housing and homeless situations that advocates worry could lead to an undercount in the census.

“These decennial census data really serve as foundation for a lot of our efforts to demonstrate the needs and concerns of Asian American Pacific Islander communities to foundations,” said Dan Ichinose, project director of the demographic research project at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles.

Nontraditional housing and homelessness

Figures from a 2017 report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) show that homelessness among Asian Americans has been rising: From 2016 to 2017, that group experienced the highest growth in homelessness among all racial groups (44 percent), followed by African-Americans, who saw a 23 percent increase.

The department recorded approximately 6,700 Asian Americans in homeless shelters and living on the street during a one-night count in January 2017, and more than 10,000 living in transitional housing — temporary housing that shelters homeless individuals for up to 24 months — or emergency shelters from October 2015 to September 2016.

Brian Sullivan, supervisory public affairs specialist at HUD, said that the figures are meant to produce an estimate of homelessness in the country and that the methods used to calculate them don't express the totality of need that exists.

Seema Agnani, executive director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, said she thinks the number of homeless Asian Americans is much higher than what the federal government has recorded, given the report's limitations. Among those, Sullivan noted, is that there is no way to discover how many people on any given night are staying with family or friends.

In San Francisco's Chinatown, an increasing number of families have been squeezing into single room occupancy units, said Norman Fong, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. Those units are meant to house a single person, he said, but on average are home to a household of four.

Advocates worry that some parents may be reluctant to answer the census honestly out of fear that law enforcement might take their kids away if they admit to living in an overcrowded setting where they don't have access to running water or a bathroom, Foo said.

This is in addition to another factor organizations expect will have a critical impact on their ability to encourage community members to respond to the survey: a potential citizenship question. According to the nonprofit AAPI Data, Asian Americans account for 1.7 million of the country's undocumented population.

“We’ll try to get them to participate, but it’s going to be rough if they ask about immigration status,” Fong said.

Obtaining a full count is crucial for a number of reasons, including that the data is used to decide how $675 billion in federal funds is distributed each year, according to the Census Bureau. It's also used for state and local budget allocation, and philanthropic funding.

In the event of an undercount, organizations that serve Asian Americans, including the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, which provides assistance to Asian American seniors, could receive less federal money.

Each year, the center assists approximately 1,600 low-income individuals and 550 local community-based organizations to provide job training, temporary paid employment, and job placement into permanent positions, Joan Eads, the interim CEO, said in an email.

The organization provides this assistance through a federally funded program without which the individuals it serves — nearly half of whom are homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless, according to Eads — would be unlikely to afford basic costs, such as food and housing, Eads said.

Addressing a potential undercount

In response to these concerns raised by nonprofits, a Department of Commerce spokesperson said in an email that the Census Bureau has been planning the most robust marketing and outreach effort in its history for 2020 to engage and motivate the public to respond. It has increased its marketing and advertising budget from $376 million in 2010 to $480 million and will hire 1,000 local partnership specialists — up from 800 in 2010 — to reach hard-to-count populations, according to the spokesperson.

In Los Angeles, to combat a possible undercount, complete count committees have been formed to guide engagement and outreach efforts, Ichinose said. Some advocacy groups are also involved in trying to steer census policy in the state by advocating ways to fill language needs that the federal government won't have the capacity for, he added.

But amid the political climate and anti-immigrant sentiment in the country, some community leaders anticipate a tough fight ahead.

Although census data is crucial for obtaining necessary resources that can help address community needs, Agnani believes it shouldn't be the only data relied upon to make funding and policy decisions.

“Obviously a lot of public policy needs to be informed by data, but it’s been so well documented that this data is a challenge that I think we need support for advocacy efforts to push for more disaggregated data,” she said. “But also, public policymakers should not wait for this data in order to think about how do we really address these issues. Data alone cannot be driving it.”

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