2010 Census Short-form

If you think creating a survey which will compel respondents to answer in an unbiased manner is easy, check out this article originally published in the Wall Street Journal in February (“Census 2010 plays six not-so-easy questions“). The six questions proposed to be asked in 2010 Census short-form questionnaire are as follows:

  1. Name of person
  2. How is this person related to Person 1*? [Person 1 is defined to be the head of household]
  3. What is this person’s sex?
  4. What is this person’s age and what is this person’s date of birth?
  5. Is this person of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin?
  6. What is the person’s race?

These seems pretty self explanatory, right? Well the questions are not as clear as they seem. Examples of problems from each category are below.

  1. Name: This field can be confusing for migrants. Chinese names are written with the surname name first and the given name last (e.g.: Yao Ming should be formally addressed as Mr. Yao). Latin-American immigrants typically have two Spanish surnames, one from the father’s family name and one from the mother’s family name.
  2. Relationship: Respondents can choose among 14 possible answers regarding their relationship to the head of household, but a 15th answer–foster child–has been deleted since the 2000 census. How are these poor foster kids going to respond to the 2010 census?
  3. Sex: While this field seems the most self-explanatory, in the 2000 census 0.05% of respondents (or 150,000 of 300 million Americans) checked both the male and female boxes.
  4. Age: According to the WSJ, “Question No. 4 asks age — and for a computer double-check, date of birth — because so many people seem to get it wrong. Adding instructions to ‘report babies as age 0’ when they’re less than a year old, offends some people, census research suggests. But in the 2005 trial it improved the response rate among people who otherwise couldn’t decide how to answer for a six-month old.”
  5. Latino: (see “Race” below)
  6. Race: Again from the WSJ, “But in trial tests, the Census Bureau also found that Asian and Hispanic immigrants could be baffled when asked to lump themselves with other nationality groups. ‘The whole concept of being Latino is a very American construct,’ says Mr. Vargas. ‘People might not know what’s being asked of them.’ Under a 2005 order from Congress, question No. 6 also allows people to call themselves ‘some other race’ and identify that race on a fill-in line. In census tests, respondents declared themselves Creole, Aryan, rainbow and cosmopolitan, among others. Other federal data users, like Social Security and the federal Education Department, don’t recognize those races, though. So in data that the Census Bureau will send to those departments, the bureau will impute a race. ‘Maybe I get it right and maybe I get it wrong. It’s not something I like to do,’ says Mr. Waite.”

To sum up, designing a good survey instrument is harder than you think.