Native Hawaiians challenge Census population data
Experts say reports of a decline conflict with other studies
U.S. Census Bureau data that shows a persistent decline in the native Hawaiian population is being disputed as the bureau prepares to release detailed racial profiles this fall.
The federal data conflicts with other research that projects a steady rise in the native Hawaiian population, both in Hawaii and the United States overall, said Eugene Tian, Ph.D., a research and statistics officer at Hawaii's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
Until the Census Bureau refines its methods, "I can't have a lot of confidence" in downward projections for native Hawaiians, he said. "It's just not what our local agencies are seeing."
A Census advisory committee, citing a "significant disparity" between the Census 2000 data and numbers from the 2005 American Community Survey, has asked the bureau to "conduct an independent evaluation of the data quality" for native Hawaiians and other Pacific islanders and to improve the way it collects and processes data. It urged the bureau to do a special, separate study of the population to generate more accurate numbers.
The Census Advisory Committee on the Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Populations, which submitted its recommendations in April, expects answers by November, said Chairman Stanton K. Enomoto. Detailed population profiles by race are set to be released that month.
"There is a level of frustration among the committee members on this issue," said Enomoto, who works for the Hawaii Community Development Authority as director of planning and development for Kalaeloa. "The native Hawaiian population is not in decline."
While the validity of the Census data is debatable, its impact is clear. As the bureau explains on its Web site, data on race and ethnicity is key to creating and funding countless federal programs and informs major policy decisions made at every level of government.
Tian said one reason native Hawaiians are undercounted is because the Census Bureau does not use race-specific fertility, mortality and migration rates in its population estimates, instead relying on an aggregate rate.
"This is important" because the birth rate for native Hawaiians is higher than for other racial groups, he said.
Enomoto cited "data suppression" as a main weakness in the American Community Survey, at least as far as native Hawaiians are concerned. Data is suppressed, meaning counted but not specifically categorized, when the number of respondents is so small as to raise confidentiality concerns. Many native Hawaiians thus end up in the "some other race category," he said.
Enomoto said the Census Bureau could improve the accuracy of its numbers by increasing the ACS sampling ratio, especially in Hawaii and California, where most Hawaiians live, and by modifying its privacy rules.
"They could aggregate the data by (a larger) geography, say, so you could still see the race and confidentiality is preserved," he said.
Debbie Griffin, a special assistant for the American Community Survey, could not speak to the committee's specific complaints. However, she defended the overall validity of the survey while acknowledging lingering criticism that minority groups are undercounted.
"I think we feel that we're doing a good job, but there is always room for improvement," she said in a telephone interview from Washington. She described advisory committees like the one Enomoto heads as "our conscience" when it comes to accurately assessing minority populations.
The bureau's press office referred specific questions about the native Hawaiian data to an employee specializing in racial statistics, but she declined to be interviewed by telephone Friday because a public information employee and the chief of the Census Advisory Committee Office were not available to join in on the call.
An advisory committee urged the Census Bureau to improve the accuracy of data generated in the native Hawaiians and other Pacific islanders category. Among the 13 recommendations:
» Conduct an independent evaluation of the data quality for the detailed race groups within the category.
» Refine collection and reporting methods so less of the racial data is suppressed.
» Pay special attention to rural areas, where there is a higher risk of nonresponse.
» Produce new data products to highlight economic, social and health characteristics for each racial group in the category.
Different conclusions rise from raw data
Census and Kamehameha Schools studies disagree on projected populations and trends
Statistics about native Hawaiians released so far from the 2005 American Community Survey define respondents narrowly (as solely native Hawaiian) or broadly (lumped in with all other Pacific islanders).
Details from the most comprehensive category -- "native Hawaiian alone or in combination with any other race" -- have not yet been released from the survey, which estimates household populations based on a sampling of the total population; people living in group quarters are excluded.
Numbers in the comprehensive category are available from Census 2000, which put the total native Hawaiian population at 401,162, including 239,655 people living in Hawaii. Unlike the ACS, the decennial census is designed to count every individual.
Demographers said it was reasonable to assume that 2005 ACS numbers in the "native Hawaiian alone or in combination" category would be stagnant or declining, based on trends reported for the larger "native Hawaiian and other Pacific islander alone or in combination" group. Native Hawaiians comprise the largest bloc of that category.
By contrast, a population forecast in Ka Huaka'i, the 2005 Native Hawaiian Educational Assessment published by Kamehameha Schools, shows the native Hawaiian population is rising, both in Hawaii and the continental United States.
The forecast estimated there were 444,910 native Hawaiians in 2005, including 259,846 living in Hawaii. The population was projected to reach 483,945 in 2010 (278,645 in Hawaii); 637,298 in 2025 (355,896 in Hawaii) and 987,602 in 2050 (536,947 in Hawaii).
The forecast, which does not distinguish among sole and multiracial Hawaiians, started with 2000 Census figures and used the most precise fertility, mortality and migration rates available to project ahead, said Nolan J. Malone, Ph.D., a senior research analyst for Kamehameha Schools.
"It's very important to have accurate figures so that our programs can predict how much they need to change and adapt over time," said Malone, one of three principal authors of the 428-page assessment.