Ancestry refers to a person's ethnic origin, heritage, descent, or "roots," which may reflect their place of birth or that of previous generations of their family. Some ethnic identities, such as "Egyptian" or "Polish" can be traced to geographic areas outside the United States, while other ethnicities such as "Pennsylvania German" or "Cajun" evolved in the United States.
The intent of the ancestry question was not to measure the degree of attachment the respondent had to a particular ethnicity, but simply to establish that the respondent had a connection to and self-identified with a particular ethnic group. 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.
The data on ancestry were derived from answers to Question 13. The question was based on self-identification; the data on ancestry represent self-classification by people according to the ancestry group(s) with which they most closely identify.
The Census Bureau coded the responses into a numeric representation of over 1,000 categories. To do so, responses initially were processed through an automated coding system; then, those that were not automatically assigned a code were coded by individuals trained in coding ancestry responses. The code list reflects the results of the Census Bureau's own research and consultations with many ethnic experts. Many decisions were made to determine the classification of responses. These decisions affected the grouping of the tabulated data. For example, the "Indonesian" category includes the responses of "Indonesian," "Celebesian," "Moluccan," and a number of other responses.
The ancestry question allowed respondents to report one or more ancestry groups. Generally, only the first two responses reported were coded. If a response was in terms of a dual ancestry, for example, "Irish English," the person was assigned two codes, in this case one for Irish and another for English. However, in certain cases, multiple responses such as "French Canadian," "Scotch-Irish," "Greek Cypriot," and "Black Dutch" were assigned a single code reflecting their status as unique groups. If a person reported one of these unique groups in addition to another group, for example, "Scotch-Irish English," resulting in three terms, that person received one code for the unique group (Scotch-Irish) and another one for the remaining group (English). If a person reported "English Irish French," only English and Irish were coded. If there were more than two ancestries listed and one of the ancestries was a part of another, such as "German Bavarian Hawaiian," the responses were coded using the more detailed groups (Bavarian and Hawaiian).
The Census Bureau accepted "American" as a unique ethnicity if it was given alone or with one other ancestry. There were some groups such as "American Indian," "Mexican American," and "African American" that were coded and identified separately.
The ancestry question is asked for every person in the American Community Survey, regardless of age, place of birth, Hispanic origin, or race.
Ancestry identifies the ethnic origins of the population, and Federal agencies regard this information as essential for fulfilling many important needs. Ancestry is required to enforce provisions under the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based upon race, sex, religion, and national origin. More generally, these data are needed to measure the social and economic characteristics of ethnic groups and to tailor services to accommodate cultural differences. The Department of Labor draws samples for surveys that provide employment statistics and other related information for ethnic groups using ancestry.
The ACS data on ancestry are released annually on the Census Bureau's internet site. The Detailed Tables (B04001-B04007) contain estimates of over 100 different ancestry groups for the nation, states, and many other geographic areas, while the Special Population Profiles contain characteristics of different ancestry groups.
In all tabulations, when respondents provided an unclassifiable ethnic identity (for example, "multi-national," "adopted," or "I have no idea"), the answer was included in "Unclassified or not reported."
The tabulations on ancestry show two types of data- one where estimates represent the number of people, and the other where estimates represent the number of responses. If you want to know how many people reported an ancestry, use the estimates based on people. If you want to know how many reports there were of a certain ancestry, use the estimates based on reports. The difference between the two types of data presentations represents the fact that people can provide more than one ancestry, therefore can be counted twice in the same ancestry category. Examples are provided below.
The following are the types of estimates shown:
Estimates Based on People
People Reporting Single Ancestry
Includes all people who reported only one ethnic group such as "German." Also included in this category are people with only a multiple- term response such as "Scotch-Irish" who are assigned a single code because they represent one distinct group. For example, in this type of table, the count for German would be interpreted as "The number of people who reported that German was their only ancestry."
People Reporting Multiple Ancestries
Includes all people who reported more than one group, such as "German" and "Irish" and were assigned two ancestry codes. The German line on this table would be interpreted as "The number of people who responded that German was part of their multiple ancestry."
People Reporting Ancestry
Includes all people who reported each ancestry, regardless of whether it was their first or second ancestry, or part of a single or multiple response. This estimate is the sum of the two estimates above (for Single and Multiple ancestry). People can be listed twice in this table. For example, if someone reports their ancestry as "German and Danish", they will be listed once in German and once in Danish, and therefore the sum of the rows would not equal the total population. Interpret the German line of this table as "The total number of people who reported they had German ancestry."
Estimates Based on Responses
Includes the first response of all people who reported at least one codeable entry. For example, in this type of table, the count for German would include all those who reported only German and those who reported German first and then some other group. The German line of this table could be interpreted as "The number of times German was listed as the first, or only, ancestry."
Includes the second response of all people who reported a multiple ancestry. Thus, the count for German in this category includes all people who reported German as the second response, regardless of the first response provided. The German line in this table is interpreted as "The number of times German was listed as a second ancestry."
Total Ancestries Reported
Includes the total number of ancestries reported and coded. If a person reported a multiple ancestry such as "German Danish," that response was counted twice in the tabulations--once in the German category and again in the Danish category. Also, if a person reported two different types of German ancestry, such as "Bavarian Hamburger", they would be counted twice in the German category on this type of table. Thus, each line of this table represents the number of reports for that ancestry type, not the number of people (although sometimes that number is the same). Likewise, the sum of the estimates in each of the rows in this type of presentation is not the total population but the total of all responses. The German line in this table is interpreted as "The number of times a German ancestry was reported."
The question on ancestry has been asked on the American Community Survey since 1996. The question wording has never changed, although placement of the question changed slightly. Also, the examples listed below the write-in lines changed in 1999, but have remained the same since then.
The question on ancestry was first asked in the 1980 Census. It replaced the question on parental place of birth, in order to include ancestral heritage for people whose families have been in the U.S. for more than two generations. The question was also asked in the 1990 and 2000 censuses.
From 1996 to 1999, the ACS editing system used answers to the race and place of birth questions to clarify ancestry responses of "Indian," where possible. In 2000 and subsequent years, the editing was expanded to aid interpretation of two-word ancestries, such as "Black Irish."
Although some experts consider religious affiliation a component of ethnic identity, the ancestry question was not designed to collect any information concerning religion. The Census Bureau is prohibited from collecting information on religion. Thus, if a religion was given as an answer to the ancestry question, it was coded as an "Other" response.
Beginning in 2006, the population in group quarters (GQ) was included in the ACS. Some types of GQ populations may have ancestry distributions that are different from the household population. The inclusion of the GQ population could therefore have a noticeable impact on the ancestry distribution. This is particularly true for areas with a substantial GQ population.
The data are comparable to Census 2000, as long as some caution is used. Response rates to the ancestry question are generally higher for ACS than for Census, and data are never generated for missing ancestry responses, therefore some ancestry groups are reported more heavily in ACS than in Census 2000.
In 2010, there were two major changes to the coding rules. If up to two ancestries were listed, both were coded, even if one was the specific of the other or if one was American. Also, race groups and Hispanic groups were coded with the same priority as non-race and non-Hispanic groups. For example, "Haitian Black French" would previously have been coded Haitian and French, but now would be coded Haitian and Black.
See the 2011 Code List for Ancestry Code List.