Who we count. How we count.


April 1, 2024

The Coalition on Human Needs helps lead Count All Kids, a campaign to improve the count of children in census data, and also advocates to improve how the census counts other communities where many members are missed, such as communities of color. When everyone in a community is counted, the community has more political power, more funding in programs that matter for kids, and better data to manage government programs and to help private sector planning too. 

One area that advocacy groups including CHN have worked with Census officials to improve is the counting of people from Middle Eastern or North African descent, often called “MENA.” Until the 2020 Census and a change in the American Community Survey that year, MENA people were asked to identify themselves as White. Many do not consider themselves to be White and instead selected “Some other race.” 

In the 2020 Census, for the first time, people who marked any race (including White or Black) could also write in more details, such as the country they come from. The Office of Management and Budget on Thursday, March 28 released new standards on collecting data on race and ethnic origins, which will allow people to select MENA as a race/ethnicity instead of choosing White (or Black, or Some other Race, and then writing in details.) By 2030, we expect that U.S. Census and other federal government surveys will have a new checkbox that will allow these populations to signify their status when asked about their race or ethnicity. 

For advocates, the change is welcome and has been a long time coming. It originally was thought that it would occur before the 2020 Census but was held up by the Trump Administration. 

Maya Berry, Executive Director of the Arab American Institute, told NPR that it took “decades” for the U.S. Census Bureau to arrive at this moment. 

“I’m ecstatic,” Berry said. “It took decades to get here. We’ve always said we’re not looking to a government form to give us our identity. But when there is no aspect of anyone’s life that is not touched by census data and your community is rendered invisible in the data when you cannot get an accurate count about it, I think it’s pretty extraordinary to understand that this initial real estate on the census form is a big deal.” 

In a research paper entitled What the 2020 Census Tells Us About Middle Eastern  North African (MENA) Children, Dr. William P. O’Hare looked at the data from the 2020 Census to see how people identified themselves as coming from a MENA country, (using the Census Bureau’s identification of MENA populations, which is not exactly the same group that many MENA organizations would select).
While many people from MENA populations still chose “Some other race,” so that this data is not fully representative of the MENA population, this is the first data we have that looks at these communities. His research is the first report we have on which states have large MENA populations, and how many children and young children are members of the MENA community.

“Since the MENA population is currently coded as white by the Census Bureau, MENA children are typically not included in statistics on minorities,” Dr. O’Hare writes. “Young children are already the most racially and ethnically diverse age group without the inclusion of MENA children as a race/ethnicity (O’Hare-Garcia 2023). Since young children make up a disproportionately large share of the MENA population, including the MENA population as a separate category will add to the diversity of young children population.” 

Accurate data on how many people are in the  MENA population has important implications for redistricting at the federal, state and local level, for the analysis of health disparities, for the analysis of access to education and other opportunities, to name just a few important consequences. The 2020 Census data and the new American Community Survey data hint at what more complete data may look like once the new OMB standards are implemented.