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Dollars and Census: Quest for New Classifications All About Federal Spending

Thursday August 16th, 2012   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 9:51am PDT   •  

The federal Census Bureau, budget $3.1 billion, seeks changes to its racial classification system that have more to do with federal spending than ethnic and racial accuracy. The current government-approved racial categories, set by the White House Office of Management and Budget, are: white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native. Many Americans consider these five categories inadequate and mark “some other race.”

Some activists want the government to add “Hispanic,” but as PBS commentator Richard Rodriguez notes, “In fact, there is no such thing as a Hispanic race. Every race of the world exists in Latin America. There are Japanese Hispanics. There are African Hispanics. There are blond Hispanics.” Current Census policy reflects that reality and treats Hispanic as a cultural designation. But the Bureau now wants to make Hispanic a distinct category.

“Latino” is not a race either and Census policy does not count it as such. Groups such as the National Institute for Latino Policy (formerly the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy) hesitate to push for a distinctive racial category because that might lead to a lower Census count for Hispanics. That might affect the more than $400 billion in annual federal spending based on Census data. According to Brookings scholar Andrew Reamer, the 2010 Census count cost more than $14 billion but will be used to dole out close to $5 trillion over 10 years.

At $4,656 per-capita in 2008 the District of Columbia is highest in federal aid linked to the Census count. New York was forth at $2,301 per capita. New York State Assemblyman Phil Ramos explains that “Communities of color have traditionally been undercounted . . . Those are the higher-maintenance communities when it comes to government spending.”

According to the Census Bureau’s Federal Aid to States for Fiscal Year 2010, the U.S. per-capita average is $2011. The District of Columbia received $16,523 total per capita federal aid. Such disparities won’t change by making “Hispanic” or “Latino” into a race. The Census Bureau can find a better basis for classification policy on the Great Seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum. That means “out of many, one,” not as former presidential candidate Al Gore had it, “out of one, many.”

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August 2012