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The US Census Bureau Misclassified the Hmong. Our Community Suffers as a Result

May 21, 2024

Recently, the US Census Bureau reclassified Hmong Americans from Southeast Asian to East Asian. This misclassification not only ensures that resources will not be allocated to the educational, health, and mental health services the Hmong community need, it erases their cultural history and identity.

Imagine the US government deciding that all humans must now be categorized as “male.” An absurd idea, you may think, as it wipes out an entire gender and its many contributions to humanity. But this is essentially what the US Census Bureau did when it reclassified Hmong Americans from Southeast Asian to East Asian. This misclassification not only ensures that resources will not be allocated to the educational, health, and mental health services we need, it erases our cultural history and identity. The Census Bureau must classify us as who we are.

For the many who may not know about us, our parents and grandparents were refugees from Laos who were recruited by the CIA to fight on behalf of the US in the Vietnam War, in a separate war in Laos, kept secret from the American public. The Hmong started arriving to the US in 1975, after facing political persecution and death in our homeland for supporting the US. This is very different from the experience of many immigrants, including East Asians, who choose to come here.

A lack of disaggregated data based on an inaccurate classification will result in insufficient educational opportunities for our youngest children. East Asians generally don’t have a need for state-funded early childhood education programs, but we do: enrollment information shows that forty-one percent of the students at Stone Soup Fresno preschool, for example, are Hmong, and this is just one of the thousands of child care centers in California. The problem is also apparent in 2021 Madison Metropolitan School District data showing that 78.9 percent of Asian American students in Madison, WI schools were proficient in reading and 78.7 percent were proficient in math; yet the disaggregated data we fought for shows that 93 percent of Hmong students can’t read at grade level, and over 72 percent can’t do grade-level math. These data points reveal the stark reality, as noted by the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice: out of all Asians in the US, the Hmong have the lowest rate of educational attainment. As of 2020, 34 percent have a high school diploma, 13 percent have a bachelor’s degree, and 5 percent have a graduate degree.

Health is another arena in which accurate, disaggregated data is essential. The 2004-2017 Wisconsin Cancer Report showed that Hmong patients with liver cancer have an overall survival rate of 5.5 months, compared to non-Hmong Asians who have a survival rate of 15.7 months. According to the Coalition of Asian American Leaders Report, 100 of the 223 deaths from COVID in Minnesota occurred in the Hmong community. In Wisconsin, an analysis of death certificates showed that COVID was the fourth leading cause of death in the Hmong community – the highest impact on any Asian American group in the state. Not knowing that, we weren’t able to advocate for funding to provide the culturally responsive support, including education about early screening, that our community needs.

Having experienced the atrocities of war and been systematically targeted at home for supporting US troops, our need for mental health services is very high, with every Hmong family having lost loved ones. Trauma carries no expiration date. Even Hmong children born in this country suffer because the trauma has trickled down from their parents and grandparents. The misclassification will reduce or eliminate resources that can help.

We have asked on the local, state, and federal level that the Census Bureau correct the misclassification. The Bureau has said it will cost too much to make the change. But this rote response masks what we know to be true: the long-term personal and financial consequences far outweigh the cost of making the correction. Children who are grounded in their home language and culture know who they are and have positive self-esteem and self-confidence, which then results in success in school, better careers, higher paying jobs, and contributions to society and our tax base. The Census Bureau has offered to include us as a footnote on the census form. We say not only that lawmakers and those in charge of funding allocation likely won’t read a footnote, but that we are more than a footnote: We are Southeast Asians who fought for this country.

We encourage advocates, business leaders, funders, and anyone with connections to elected officials to ask them to reach out to the US Office of Management and Budget and the Census Bureau and demand that they make the change. The money left on the table due to the misclassification and the erasure this precedent sets will have lifelong negative impacts on our community that can easily be avoided.

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