The intent of the ancestry question is not to measure the degree of attachment the respondent had to a particular ethnicity. For example, a response of "Irish" might reflect total involvement in an "Irish" community or only a memory of ancestors several generations removed from the individual. A person’s ancestry is not necessarily the same as his or her place of birth; i.e., not all people of German ancestry were born in Germany (in fact, most were not).
Currently, when someone reports more than two groups for their ancestry in the American Community Survey, only the first two ancestries are tabulated.
Some people identify their ancestry as American. This could be because their ancestors have been in United States for a long time or they have such mixed backgrounds that they do not identify with any particular group. Some foreign born or children of the foreign born may report American to show that they are part of American society. There are many reasons people may report their ancestors as American, and the growth in this response has been substantial.
The ancestry question was added to the census form in 1980, so the earliest information available from this question is from 1980.
About the Ancestry question
The Census Bureau currently collects ancestry data through the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS question on ancestry is "What is your ancestry or ethnic origin?" The text after the question provides examples of particular ethnic groups. The response area for the question consists of two write-in lines in which respondents can report ancestry or ancestries with which they identify. We code up to two ancestries per person. If a person reports more than two ancestries, we generally take the first two. For example, if a person reports German, Italian, and Scottish, we would code German and Italian.
The question wording, examples, and format of the response area are the same in the ACS as they were in Census 2000.
In 1990, the ancestry question was the same as it was in 2000. However, the examples given were different.
The question in 1980 was "What is your ancestry?" This differed from the following censuses in its not asking about "ethnic origin."
About how the Ancestry groups are tabulated
Some groups are not listed in our tables because too few people identified with them. There are hundreds of ancestry groups, and given space limitations in our tables, we cannot show all groups in every product. Issues of confidentiality also arise when the size of groups are too small to show.
Census data on race and Hispanic groups come from the race and Hispanic origin questions. In most of our ancestry tables we do not show groups that are shown elsewhere in the race and Hispanic tables. For some products such as the Ancestry: 2000 brief, we show all ancestry responses, including race and Hispanic groups, above a certain size.
We do not tabulate data on religious groups. If people write in a religious group as an ancestry response, it is included under "Other ancestries."
The list below shows all of the ancestries that we collect, along with the code we assign each ancestry.
About Ancestry terms and concepts
First Ancestry, Second Ancestry, and Total Ancestry
"First Ancestry" is a designation we use on some data products to show the groups that were reported first in response to the ancestry question. Likewise, "Second Ancestry" represents groups that were reported second. For example, if someone wrote in Jamaican and English, their First Ancestry would be Jamaican, and their Second Ancestry would be English. "Total Ancestry" is the sum of responses, or the total number of times Jamaican was reported.
Single Ancestry, Multiple Ancestry, and People Reporting Ancestry
Tables titled “Single Ancestry” show people who reported only one ancestry. Tables titled “Multiple Ancestry” show only people who reported more than one response. Tables titled “People Reporting Ancestry” show everyone who reported an ancestry, regardless of whether their response was a single or multiple response. The “People Reporting Ancestry” table differs from the “Total Ancestry Reported” table, in that the latter table double-counts people within categories if they reported two ancestries that fall within the same category.
For example, here is how you would interpret the data for a particular group, such as Lebanese, on each of these three tables:
- People Reporting Single Ancestry – the number of people who gave Lebanese as their only ancestry.
- People Reporting Multiple Ancestry – the number of people who gave Lebanese as part of a multiple-ancestry response.
- People Reporting Ancestry – the number of people who reported Lebanese, regardless of whether it was their only response, or part of a multiple-ancestry response.