New census questions attempt to accurately measure race, ethnicity

Updated: Nov 2

By Jeremy Rhodes


The U.S. census has been collecting data on Hispanic/Latino origin since 1970, and the precise wording of the questions has evolved over those years. Since 2000, the census has asked two separate questions about race and ethnicity. The first question asks about Hispanic/Latino origin, and the second question asks about racial categories such as White, Black, and Asian.

There are two changes to the 2020 census that have a major impact on the number of people who are classified as Latino or multiracial. First, the Census Bureau increased the number of characters that would be recognized in a write-in response from 30 characters to 200. They give the following example: In the 2010 Census, a person who wrote in “MEXICAN AMERICAN INDIAN AND PORTUGUESE AND AFRICAN AMERICAN” would have been correctly coded for the “Mexican American Indian” component, but the “Portuguese and African American” labels would have been dropped due to the 30-character limit, and that person may not have been correctly classified. By incorporating 200 characters instead of 30, those last two categories are assigned.


Second, in the 2010 census, a person who wrote in more than two racial/ethnic categories would only be classified in two categories, decided by experts in race and demography. In the 2020 census, an individual can be classified in up to six categories.


These changes led to significant growth in Hispanic and multiracial populations in Waco from 2010 to 2020. McLennan County saw an increase of 25,673 people from 2010-2020, and 13,116 of those people, or 51.1%, are classified as Latino. 97% of the total population growth were either Hispanic or multiracial.


Despite these increases, it is believed by many experts that the 2020 census has undercounted Latinos and other people of color. This undercount is likely due to high distrust of government among immigrants and their loved ones, and the fact that COVID did significant damage to census outreach plans.


Jeremy has written four recent articles on what the 2020 census says about Greater Waco. They are on the Act Locally Waco site:

County census data #1: Total population

County census data #2: Racial & ethnic population changes

County census data #3: More on racial/ethnic changes

County census data #4: Housing & households


Jeremy Rhodes, Ph.D., is director of research and community impact for Prosper Waco.