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Census Knowledge and Census Participation Among Hispanics

Wed Jan 18 2017
Written by: By: Yazmín A. García Trejo, Ph.D., Language and Cross-Cultural Research team at the Center for Survey Research
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Does knowledge about the decennial census encourage participation among populations that are hard to count (e.g. people with language barriers and socio-economic disadvantages)? Past efforts to determine what people knew about the decennial census and whether they filled out the questionnaire indicate that knowledge and participation vary by education and age.

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Moreover, U.S. Census Bureau research shows that non-English speaking populations are less likely to understand the uses of the decennial census. This is important when studying Hispanics, who have diverse origins, language use and socio-economic characteristics that make some members of the group harder to reach than others. This blog post focuses on analyses of data regarding census awareness. Specifically, I analyze awareness of the mandatory requirement to complete the census and awareness of census data confidentiality. Finally, at the end of this post I list some additional findings on census knowledge related to demographics and representation and the uses of the decennial census in relation to taxes and enforcement.

To explore these questions, I analyzed data from the 2011 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Survey II, and focused on persons who self-identified as Hispanic or Latino. (I use the two terms interchangeably in this blog.) The 2011 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Survey II is comprised of 12 questions including five about correct uses of the decennial census, five about misconceptions about decennial census usage, and two concerning legal knowledge about confidentiality and the mandatory requirement to answer the decennial census (Table 1). It was conducted through landline telephone, cell phone, and face-to-face interviews, and it oversampled hard-to-reach populations, like Hispanics.

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Regarding legal matters, 91 percent of Latinos responded that they were aware that the information in the decennial census is confidential, yet only 46 percent realized that it is also mandatory (Figure 1). These are very similar to those for the general population. About 86 percent of the general population responded that they knew the Census Bureau must keep information confidential, and approximately 43 percent responded that they knew the decennial census is mandatory.


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Figure 2 shows how answers to these questions varied with respect to the language Hispanics used to respond to the survey. As Figure 2 shows, Latinos who responded to the survey in Spanish, compared to those who responded in English, more often knew that the decennial census was required by law (59 percent) and that the Census Bureau must keep data confidential (95 percent). Latinos who responded in Spanish in 2011, exceled in their knowledge about the mandatory requirement and the confidentiality of their information. Researchers in the field of Latino public opinion explain that variables such as language influence the attitudes and behaviors of the Latino population because people can interpret translated concepts differently and may hold different views depending on how long they have been living in the United States.


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While these results are helpful in understanding Latinos’ knowledge about the decennial census, we know too little about how they learned about the census.  Further research is necessary to understand whether the trend on knowledge about legal matters of the decennial census (confidentiality and the mandatory requirement) found among Latinos in 2011 was related to the prominence of the messages during the communications campaign in 2010.

  1. Our ongoing analyses of the 2011 data point toward evidence that Hispanics were highly knowledgeable about decennial census uses such as population changes, allocation of resources to communities, and helping business and government plan for the future. However, the knowledge that decennial census data is used for decisions about political representation was not widespread.
  2. We need to examine how variations in decennial census knowledge and participation by language, age and education among Latinos are related to their final decision to fill out the decennial census form.


This research can potentially contribute to conversations about the development of awareness campaigns about decennial census data usage that aim to motivate subgroups of hard-to-count populations to fill out the decennial census form. Ultimately, this research can also help in the design of better outreach strategies and improve messaging to these populations.

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