BOX 3-2
The Need for Improved Data

Before 1970 knowledge about the Hispanic population was largely regional in scope because of the Census Bureau’s reliance on objective indicators, such as Spanish surname, birthplace, parents’ birthplace, and mother tongue to identify people of Spanish ancestry or descent. The Spanish origin item, first introduced in the 1969 Current Population Survey (CPS) on an experimental basis and then included in the 5 percent schedule of the 1970 census, allowed for the enumeration of the Hispanic population on a national basis. Although the 1980 census improved the Hispanic enumeration by including the Spanish origin item on the 100 percent schedule, the replacement of the parents’ birthplace item, which was used to represent generational status from 1870 to 1970, with a question about ancestry compromised the ability to portray intergenerational changes. Consequently, the measurement of Hispanics’ intergenerational progress has been limited to surveys with detailed information about generational status.

There is a pressing need for additional data on parental birthplace to provide information about the generational status of Hispanics (and other groups) and enable the tracking of intergenerational mobility. Neither the census, which is the primary source for information on the foreign born in the United States, nor the American Community Survey (ACS), intended to replace the census long form, asks this question.31

The annual CPS, conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, does include questions about parental nativity. The responses to these questions yield valuable information for the study of immigrants and their children.

However, the CPS is based on a sample rather than a full enumeration—hence it generates “estimates” rather than enumerated generational composition. The CPS is also hampered by small sample sizes. When the available data are broken down by national origin and generational cohort, cell sizes do not permit reliable analyses, even if multiple years of the survey are merged.32 In the CPS, “third generation” includes a substantial share of persons of fourth, fifth, and higher-order generational status.

These problems can be remedied by adding questions about parental nativity to the census and the ACS and other major data sources. There is also a need for samples that are large enough to enable the study of national-origin groups by generation, with appropriate controls on salient variables. Having Spanish-language versions of survey instruments will avoid the exclusion of participation on the basis of language.

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