Demographics
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The Topic
"Demography" is the study of human populations, using statistics to describe conditions of life. Demographers consider a range of information about the size and density of populations, the ages of their members, and how populations change. Births, deaths, disease, marriages, divorces, immigration, economic standing, occupation, race, ethnic and country of origin all are subjects for the demographer.
The Context
New York City is unique and fascinating demographically. Recently, it has had large numbers of foreign immigrants arriving, many long-standing residents leaving, an increase in the gap between the rich and the poor, and a rise in the black middle class. It is a city of unique ethnic and racial diversity; it has a large older population. It was the home of many immigrants during the turn of the 20th Century. It was a destination for many African Americans from the Southern United States. Many residents of the City's suburbs fled New York City starting after World War II. In some areas of the city there is rapid growth fueled by immigrants and their children. Some areas are undergoing racial and ethnic transition; others are gentrifying. These trends are important for understanding the Ccty and its evolution.
The Reporter
Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981. Since 1993 he has done demographic analyses and consulted for the New York Times. He has provided expert testimony in districting and redistricting, housing discrimination, and numerous other civil rights cases in the metropolitan area and elsewhere. The opinions expressed in Topics are his alone.
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by Andrew Beveridge

Counting Muslims

A nasty dispute recently broke out about the number of Muslims in the United States. One study (available online in pdf format) claims six to seven million. Funded by four Muslim organization and directed by Ishan Bagby of Shaw University, it counted Muslims by contacting mosques and using various assumptions. The American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Barry Kosmin and Egon Mayer through the City University of New York Graduate Center found at most three million Muslims using a telephone survey. About one-quarter of all Muslims make New York State their home, according to Kosmin and Mayer Kosmin is one of the leading students of religious demography, and is co-author of "One Nation Under God," based upon a similar study done 10 years ago. The American Jewish Committee commissioned Tom Smith to assess the available estimates and make one of his own. His independent estimate largely agrees with that of the CUNY Graduate Center team.

Who is right? Why is it so difficult to count the number of Muslims? First, the Census Bureau is actually prohibited from counting Muslims. Islam is a religion rather than an ethnicity or a national origin, and the bureau is barred from asking about religion. Muslims and supporters of civil liberties might be especially thankful for this at this particular moment in American history. In a notorious chapter of their history, the Census Bureau assisted the US government in rounding up the Japanese-Americans at the beginning of World War II by using the agency's very detailed block-by-block tabulations. At a recent conference, a Bureau official said that they had received over 150 requests from other governmental bodies for information about Arabs (which are considered an ancestry) and immigrants from Muslim countries.

Since Muslims, whatever their number, are a small part of the United States population they are hard to count. They are also hard to define. Considering just adults, what does one need to do to be counted as a Muslim? Go to a mosque? Pray several times per day? Observe Ramadan? Have made a pilgrimage to Mecca? Eat Halal foods? Those trying to count Jews face similar problems. One definition of Jewish, for instance, is "Feeling you should go to High Holiday services." By such a definition apparently, it is enough to either go to the services or to feel guilty about not going.

When Bagby released his study in April, many reporters noted that if his figures were right then Muslims outnumbered Jews in the United States. This relatively unimportant fact in April that might add to Muslim bragging rights over Jews took on added significance with the September 11th attack. The American Jewish Committee commissioned Smith, and Egon Mayer is head of CUNY's Center for Jewish Studies, so some suspicion has greeted the release of their reports.

However, when one compares Bagby's methods and assumptions with those of Smith and Kosmin, it is plain that Bagby's is severely and fatally flawed. He enumerates all American mosques (1209 he says) and then interviews mosque representatives from a sample of 631. His response rate is a respectable two-thirds. But plainly big well-organized mosques with a well-staffed office would be much more likely to respond than smaller less well-funded mosques with part-time office staffs. He finds that on the average more than 1,600 people are involved with each Mosque, and then multiples that figure by all 1209 Mosques, claiming that about 2 million are involved. He then asserts that two thirds of Muslims are missing from the mosques, so he multiplies by three and announces that there are between six and seven Muslims in the United States.

Kosmin and Mayer by contrast base their estimate on the 219 Muslims contacted, while they were phoning about 50,000 people. Weighting their estimate appropriately they find 1.1 million Muslim adults, which is double what they found in 1991. Including children this would make the Muslim population about 1.5 million. Since there is sampling error they admit that the total could be as much as three million. Smith by ransacking available data comes up with an estimate of 1.4 million, 1.9 million including children. Looking at standard errors, his upper bound is very similar to that of Kosmin and Mayer. An analysis that my associates and I did for the New York Times of immigrants or children of immigrants from Muslim countries comes up with similar numbers. (It is true, of course that some immigrants from Muslim countries are not Muslim, and other Muslim immigrants come from non-Muslim counties. Other Muslims are native born.)

It seems that Bagby, along with many "ethnic group researchers" is willing to bend every effort to increase the count of his group . Kosmin and Smith, both renowned and careful social scientists, do as much as possible to base their counts on established methods. But even they give the benefit of the doubt to their highest possible count.

No matter how many Muslim there are, all researchers agree that the Muslim community, as with the Arab community (discussed here in September) are doing quite well in America. They are highly educated, many are quite prosperous, and they occupy a wide variety jobs. But it is also the case that they are Americanizing. As one of my students, an American citizen and the son of the Bangladeshi Islamic religious leader, told me: "My brothers and I are very observant, but my nieces and nephews seem much more American. I don't know if they will all continue to be Muslim." So like other groups, being successful in the United States may increase the group's influence and prosperity, while ultimately diminishing its size.


Five Sites For Beginners:

  • US Census Bureau - Hands-down candidate for the richest source of post-1990 population data for NYC. Here you will find annual updates detailing age and sex, race and Hispanic origin, as well as births, deaths, net domestic migration and net international migration. Excellent special feature: county-by-county estimates of the below poverty level population. Indispensable and superb.
  • American FactFinder - Also courtesy of the US Census Bureau. Features data on population and housing, industry and business as well as a searchable database on any other demographic information you could possibly want. Available by state, metro or urbanized area. Maps too!
  • US/NYS Departments of Labor - Another exemplary source is the Local Area Unemployment Statistics unit of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Each month the Bureau, in a joint undertaking with the State, provides county by county estimates of the employment status of the working age population.
  • U.S. Commerce Department - A comprehensive handle on where and how New Yorkers earn their livings. Also features information on Big Apple employers, salaries, industries and their revenues. Especially recommended is a database maintained as part of Commerce's Regional Accounts.
  • New York Metropolitan Transportation Council - One of the more ambitious on-line undertakings in making regional and city statistical data. Contains data on population, employment and income, to name a few. Not always easy to use, but well worth the effort.


Other Recommendations:

  • New York City Department of Health -- Though the website of New York City's Department of Health is utterly confusing, their annual publication, "Summary of Vital Statistics for New York" is indispensable for would be students of population dynamics. And it's free. Call the Press Office at 212-788-5290 and ask for the Office of Vital Statistics and Epidemeology. Persevere.
  • New York City Department of City Planning - One would think that the DCP would have put its population data base on-line in a user-friendly way. But no. Go figure. It's still worth looking at their website to see the lineup of potential sources and types of population and economic information.
  • New York City's Housing and Vacancy Survey - Every three years or so the US Census Bureau provides New York City with a census-type survey of the city's households. Mandated by the rent regulation law, it contains much that is of interest to those concerned with social and economic change at the borough and neighborhood level. A compact disc containing the microdata files for the 1991, 1993 and 1996 surveys can be purchased from the Census Bureau. The survey for 1999 will be available for analysts by 2000, scooping the decennial Census.

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