Virginia’s Hispanic Population Grew at Record Rates. But The Census Could Still Be Off.

US Census Form

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By Alex Scribner

October 15, 2021

Experts caution the data may still be undercounting the state’s Hispanic population. That matters when it comes to policy and public funding.

The national Hispanic population grew 23% since the last census was taken, making up half of total population growth nationwide. When compared to the rest of the country, Virginia’s Hispanic population grew significantly faster: a 44% increase over ten years.

Mark Hugo Lopez, Pew’s head of race and ethnicity research, said those numbers may not capture the full picture. The US government has long requested ethnic and racial information from its residents, but the way it asks reflects the social norms of the time.

“It’s likely that we will see a conversation about addressing and changing the race and ethnicity question on the census in order to both reflect how the American public sees itself, but also to perhaps have a better way of asking about race and ethnicity,” Lopez said.  

Hispanic communities, like the Salvadorans in the DC area, have been establishing roots in Virginia for decades. In fact, the highest concentration of the state’s Hispanic population resides in northern Virginia. But growth has happened all over the state.

“The interesting thing is that most locations have seen a growth in the Hispanic population, even though the percentages may not be very high,” said Qian Cai, director at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. Cai oversees the Demographics Research Group’s data production and research, including projects focused on and around the 2020 census. Part of her job is informing the public on how to view and use demographic data. 

One of her colleagues, Hamilton Lombard, pointed out that as our community grows increasingly diverse, it becomes more difficult to categorize its members. The group recommends caution when coming to conclusions from current public datasets. Especially in Virginia’s smaller localities, the group found data errors and distortions appeared more often than actual demographic trends. These errors frequently are at the expense of undercounting minority groups. 

“The 2020 Census counted a million more Hispanics than was expected given population estimates from the Census Bureau,” Lopez said. “This is the second census in a row where the counts delivered a number that was one million higher than people might have expected…but they’re still maybe an undercount.”

Collected every ten years, the census always brings up thorny questions of the times. One major difference is how race and ethnicity are collected and coded. And experts say the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question may have also contributed to census hesitancy and therefore inaccuracy.  

“The attempt to include a citizenship question in the census by the Trump administration may have sent an intimidating signal or scary signal to the immigrant community,” Cai said. “That was always an issue relating to the undercounting of minority groups, and probably, it was a little bit more permanent for the last census in terms of counting immigrant populations and including Hispanic populations.” 

For the first time, the Census Bureau implemented “differential privacy” in an effort to keep personal information more secure. For example, if you live in a small county, the data released from the census may make you more easily identifiable. In an effort to mitigate breaches of privacy, the bureau inputs “noise” into the data. This disruption of data alters the accuracy of total population, age distribution, and sex composition data. 

An example from Weldon Cooper Center research: “Census race data for Williamsburg and many Virginia communities appear to be incorrect. The 2020 Census shows that the share of Williamsburg residents who identified as Black nearly tripled to 39 percent between 2010 and 2020.”  

While good for privacy, altered data also affects policy recommendations. Cai pointed out the importance of total population and age distribution to education funding. If a group of college students are labeled high schoolers in the public dataset (to protect their privacy), one locality may receive more (or less) funding than they deserve. This applies to policy recommendations as well. 

“Overall, if we caution users about using census data, I think that this population data is not one of those big concerns,” Cai said. 

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