Posted on May 16, 2015 in Arab American Institute

Census_Headers9.jpgCurrently, there is no ethnic category for Arab Americans on the U.S. Census. This has led to a significant undercount of the community, creating barriers to many basic rights and services. While the Census Bureau estimates the number of Arab Americans in the United States at 1.8 million, the Arab American Institute estimates that the total is actually closer to 3.7 million. Federal data on Arab Americans is obtained through ancestry data from the American Community Survey, a yearly survey that collects economic, social, demographic and housing information from a small sample of the population.

The Problem

The creation of a coherent ethnic category for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will have a positive impact on the treatment and services available to members of the Arab American community. The undercounting of Arab Americans has served as a barrier to representation, education, health, and employment for the community in the following ways:

Language Assistance and Voting Rights

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act protects minority language populations by ensuring the availability of foreign language ballots and translation services at polling places. The groups included are determined by the Census, excluding Arab Americans from protection under Section 203.


Inclusion in the Census will allow for more accurate allocations of grants to school districts with larger populations of children with limited English proficiency for assisted learning as well as funding for cultural competency training for educators working directly with Arab Americans. A correct count of MENA populations will better show need for English language programs and adult literacy courses.


Because data about the majority of persons with MENA origin are not currently able to be disaggregated, it is impossible for researchers to address diseases that are ethnic-specific, such as lactose intolerance, or the prevalence of diabetes among Arab Americans. Inclusion on the Census will create greater access to health information about Arab Americans, as well as nutrition or funding for services for the elderly and disabled.


Census data are used for monitoring and enforcing equal employment opportunities, and the new ethnic category could be used to protect Arab Americans from discrimination in hiring practices. The category will allow for the provision of Employment Assistance to the often undercounted lower-income and newly immigrated populations through funding to private and public nonprofits.

Moving Forward

Efforts are underway to support the addition of a Middle East and North Africa (MENA) category on the 2020 Census. A letter on behalf of a broad coalition of advocates and scholars was sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Chief Statistician, Dr. Katherine Wallman, in July 2013. The following year, in March, AAI hosted a meeting with the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Dr. John Thompson, to discuss the possibility of a new category that would encompass those from the MENA region. In July 2014, AAI presented research on the creation of a MENA category to the Interagency Working Group on Research on Race and Ethnicity at a meeting hosted by the Office of Management and Budget.

In October 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it would begin testing in 2015 of a Middle East and North Africa (MENA) category for possible inclusion on the 2020 Census. After a write-in campaign from community organizations representing groups that would be counted by the category, the Bureau stated that they had received a record number of positive comments in response to the Federal Register posting announcing the testing of the category at the Spring 2015 meeting of the National Advisory Committee.

In May of 2015, the Census Bureau held an Expert Forum to hear input on the definition and coding of the category from community members and specialists on the region. AAI, along with numerous community organizations that make up the MENA Advocacy Network, asked the Census Bureau to consider the creation of a category that would provide the most comprehensive data capturing the multiple racial, ethnic, and national identities of Americans with Middle Eastern and North African ancestry.

Shortly after the forum, the category went into the eld for testing as part of the National Content Test (NCT). The Census Bureau plans on releasing the results of the NCT in Fall 2016.

The MENA category would be an important corrective measure to the severe undercount of our community. The Arab American Institute will continue to work closely on the new category, working to ensure an inclusive definition of MENA and monitoring the testing process to con rm that any new category produces better data on our community. It is essential that we continue to voice our urgency and support for Census revisions.

• Add a new MENA category to census surveys before the 2020 Census to allow individuals to identify as being of Middle Eastern or North African descent and offer a space to further specify their ethnic origin.

• Raise awareness of the importance of Census data in various education, health and employment policies. The creation of a new ethnic category on the Census for persons of Middle East and North African descent, similar to the existing category for Hispanic origin communities, would allow for more complete data about the MENA communities to be collected. 

Download the AAI Issue Brief:

Adding a MENA Category to the U.S. Census (2016)

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