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Census racial counts awaited

Minority leaders want to see how new policies work

Minority leaders in Utah are anxiously awaiting this month's Census Bureau release of Utah's population count by race, not only to see how the population has changed but how the new, more specific breakdown of race and ethnicity categories plays out.

For the first time, the Census Bureau's count will reflect the number of residents who are of more than one race, something that some minority leaders fear could dilute their numbers.

"It's a little bit scary. They're thin-spread," said Moon W. Ji of the state Asian Affairs Office. "People might look at the number in the Asian category and say, 'This population is only 2,000 or 3,000.' "

After a 1997 ruling by the federal Office of Management and Budget, the Census Bureau rephrased the race question so that residents could pick more than one category of race.

The change is intended to be more accurate, with a total of 63 choices of racial categories on the 2000 Census forms compared with the five racial categories available on 1990s forms.

Instead of choosing among white, black, American Indian, Asian or Pacific Islander and other, as respondents have done since 1980, those filling out forms last year could choose anything from "white" to "white, black, American Indian, Asian, Pacific Islander and other."

Hispanic is not a race choice, but the question of Hispanic or Spanish origin is asked separately. And taking that question into consideration, the number of possibilities is actually 126.

James Yapias of the Utah Office of Hispanic Affairs says he thinks having more categories of race is both good and bad.

It is more accurate and gives people like his son, who is half Peruvian and half white, a specific box to check. But he wonders how those numbers will be calculated, and if the trend for more categories continues whether it will lead to an increasingly spread-out population.

"The fact that there's a separate box is great. But do you count my son as Caucasian or Hispanic, or both? Is there a half person?" he said. "As time goes on, are we going to have 1,000 categories or 1,500 categories?"

Something that may add to the a thinning of the Asian population may be the fact that Asians used to be grouped with Pacific Islanders, Ji says. Those categories were separated in 2000, which also means the numbers will be split up, making that minority group appear less significant, he said.

In 1990, the total number of those in the Asian or Pacific Islander category was 33,371, or about 2 percent of the state's population. Ji says he predicts the Asian population is now more than 50,000.

"The minority population has increased. You can see the people, you can hear the different languages," Ji said. "We like to see how the community has changed. Our system has to respond based on that change."

Ji says the 1990 Census was "totally undercounted." He says the results from Census 2000 should be much more accurate, considering the big push for high response rates and the effort that went into getting minorities to fill out their forms.

National experts agree with him. The Census Bureau has called the 2000 results the most accurate count yet. In fact, the bureau decided this week to recommend states use the raw numbers instead of pushing for scientifically adjusted numbers, which are meant to compensate for those U.S. residents who are more likely to be missed by the count, specifically minorities and the poor.

The population numbers that will be released this month will be used for redrawing voting districts, allocating funds and evaluating programs. Yapias says an accurate Hispanic count is important specifically for educational funding. Right now, he says there aren't enough bilingual teachers or Spanish-speaking programs to fill the need.

"It's a huge concern. We see it in the educational system," he said.

Utah's population was one of the fastest-growing in the nation, with a growth rate over the past 10 years of more than double that of the country's growth rate, according to the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget. Utah's resident population for 2000 was 2.2 million.

In 1990, minorities accounted for slightly more than 107,000, or about 6 percent of the total population. Some estimate minorities now account for nearly 12 percent of the population.