Is Census Question No. 13 Worth US Taxpayers' Cash?

It culls vital information about ethnicity, but critics decry its cost

Did you know that...

Almost one-quarter of Americans have at least some German ancestry, the No. 1 reported ethnic identity in the United States?

Almost half of Danish-Americans live in the Western US, while most Norwegian-Americans live in the Midwest?

The annual income of Italian-Americans is above the national average by about $2,000?

This type of information, and many more facts about Americans' ethnicity, is gleaned every 10 years by the national census. And as the Census Bureau and Congress gear up for the big count in 2000, dozens of ethnic American groups are joining forces to make sure the ancestry question is still asked.

For now, there is no particular move afoot in Congress to eliminate Question 13 - the ancestry question - which is included in the "long form" questionnaire that is sent to 1 in 6 households. But the census itself is under the gun for reported inefficiencies, and the long form sits as an easy target for a Congress looking to save money. The cost of the long form is $300 million.

"We are acting preemptively," says Kathryn Pearson, an aide to Rep. Connie Morella (R) of Maryland, who is working with a coalition of 80 ethnic groups on the issue. Last week, Congresswoman Morella and Sen. Robert Toricelli (D) of New Jersey introduced a concurrent resolution calling for preservation of the ancestry question. So far, the resolution has 17 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate.

The ancestry question provides much useful data. With such data, researchers can study how ethnic groups assimilate into American life. Government agencies can determine the makeup of ethnic populations, which may have particular health-care, educational, or civil-rights needs. Ethnic interest groups can get an unbiased count of their populations as they press political causes and solicit donations. Businesses can use the numbers to market their products.

"If this data is not collected in Census 2000, we will lose the only reliable and nationally comparable source of information on ethnicity," Morella wrote in a letter to members of Congress.

But isn't this information obtainable through local research or direct observation? In general, yes, say advocates of ethnic groups. But in practice, hard data are necessary.

In Michigan, for example, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, a private social-service agency, must document precise economic and educational facts about Arabs when it asks the United Way and local governments for funds. "The long form of the census is the only way that we can learn anything about our community," says Helen Samhan of the Arab American Institute Foundation in Washington.

The ancestry question is different from the racial identification question found on the main census questionnaire, itself a charged issue, as the Census Bureau considers allowing Americans to report themselves as "mixed race."

Rep. Harold Rogers (R) of Kentucky, chair of the subcommittee that covers the Census Bureau, has criticized the census in the past. "His concern is the response rate," says Susan Zimmerman, Congressman Rogers's spokeswoman. "The long form has so many questions it ends up in the trash can, and that undermines our constitutional mandate to get accurate information."

By April 1, the Census Bureau must submit to Congress the material it plans to include in the 2000 census. The Census Bureau declined to comment on the record for this article.

Top 15 Ethnic Origin Groups

In the US, 1990

1. German 58 million 23 %

2. Irish 39 million 16

3. English 33 million 13

4. African-Amer. 24 million 10

5. Italian 15 million 6

6. American 12 million 5

7. Mexican 12 million 5

8. French 10 million 4

9. Polish 9 million 4

10. Amer. Indian 9 million 4

11. Dutch 6 million 3

12. Scotch-Irish 6 million 2

13. Scottish 5 million 2

14. Swedish 5 million 2

15. Norwegian 4 million 2

Source: Bureau of the Census

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