May 13, 2001

No Consensus on the Census

Introduction and Summary

Dramatic increases in both the size and ethnic diversity of America’s population, reflected in the 2000 census, are drawing a mixed reaction from the public. Consistent with a long-term rise in favorable attitudes toward immigrants, more people say today’s immigrants are better able to adapt to American life than did so four years ago. Yet the public is concerned over the surge in the nation’s population in the past decade. Half view that negatively, compared to 32% who see it as a good thing. And more whites than blacks or Hispanics raise concerns about the changing demographic composition of the country.

The Pew Research Center’s latest survey shows that, to perhaps a surprising degree, news about the census has penetrated the public’s consciousness. Fully two-thirds have heard of California’s emergence as a “minority-majority” state — where blacks, Hispanics and people of Asian descent comprise a majority — and 58% know that, nationwide, Hispanics are now as populous as blacks.

Race and ethnicity are important factors in the public’s attitudes toward the census. Hispanics and non-whites are more upbeat over population growth than non-Hispanic whites, better than half of whom (54%) see this as a bad thing.

The census has shown that, despite the nation’s increasing diversity, segregation remains a fact of life in the United States. About seven-in-ten (71%) see this as a bad thing. More blacks and Hispanics than whites express concern about racial segregation.

By a fairly narrow margin (35%-29%), non-Hispanic whites react positively to the census finding that Hispanics have achieved rough numerical parity with blacks. Hispanics and nonwhites are much more encouraged by this — more than half (52%) see it as a good thing.

Racial differences are also evident on California’s minority-majority status. While non-Hispanic whites are divided over whether this is a good thing, Hispanics and non-whites, by a three-to-one margin (61%-20%), have a positive reaction to this census finding.

While whites appear somewhat conflicted over many of the census findings, so too are older people. Americans age 50 and over are split over whether it is good that Hispanics are now as populous as blacks. Women age 50 and over, in particular, have reservations about this demographic shift. Just 28% see the growth of the Hispanic population as a good thing, compared to 41% of men age 50 and over.

More Say Immigrants Adapt

This mixed view of the changing composition of the population may be more reflective of ethnic and racial strains than economic concerns. In general, the public is less resentful of immigrants than in the mid- and late-1990s and far less likely to regard them as an economic burden.

The current survey finds that better than four-in-ten (43%) say today’s immigrants adapt better to American life than their predecessors in the early 1900s; 34% held that view in 1997. Just half as many in the current survey (21%) say they don’t adapt as well, and 31% believe that today’s immigrants adapt in about the same fashion.

Democrats and independents are more likely than Republicans to say that today’s immigrants fit in better than their predecessors. There also is a gender gap on this question — more women than men believe that today’s immigrants fit in better than those in the past.

In recent years, attitudes toward immigrants — particularly regarding their economic impact — have undergone a remarkable turnaround. In 1994, the public by about a two-to-one margin (63% -31%) saw immigrants as an economic drain on the country. In a Center survey last September, just 38% held that view (a 25% shift), while half of Americans said immigrants’ work ethics and talents strengthened the United States. This trend has cut across racial and ethnic lines; whites, blacks and Hispanics all hold more favorable views of immigrants’ economic contributions than they did several years ago.

However, a recent Gallup survey showed that, if anything, the public is slightly more divided over immigrants’ cultural impact. In March, Gallup found a plurality (45%) saying that increased diversity created by immigrants mostly improves American culture, while 38% say it mostly threatens the culture.

New Categories OK

Last year’s census, for the first time, allowed Americans to classify themselves as belonging to more than one race. By and large, the public approves of this change — half believe it is a good thing, while 27% view it negatively.

Six-in-ten Hispanics endorse the change, compared to about half of whites and blacks (49% and 51%, respectively). But slightly more African-Americans (36%) have an unfavorable reaction to the new racial classifications than either whites or Hispanics (26%, 23%).

Cite this publication: “No Consensus on the Census.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 13, 2001) http://www.people-press.org/2001/05/13/no-consensus-on-the-census/, accessed on July 22, 2014.