Who We Measure Matters: Connecting the Dots Among Comprehensive Data Collection, Civil Rights Enforcement, and Equality

A U.S. Census volunteer places a sign in front of a resident's home in Miami as part of an effort to boost mail response rates in hard-to-count communities, April 2010.

Authors’ note: In this column, the authors use the term “equality” to invoke the equal protection legal principles that undergird many civil rights statutes. They intend for this term to be read expansively in order to encompass broader concepts of equity and justice. The authors also use a comprehensive and inclusive definition of “sex,” wherein gender is a fluid concept rooted in societal and cultural expectations. This column aims to encompass the diverse experiences of individuals across the gender continuum, including but not limited to transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming individuals.

Equality is often touted by public officials, policymakers, and political candidates as one of America’s most cherished principles. But true equality that affords every individual a just and fair chance to access opportunity, exercise autonomy, and succeed in life is not experienced consistently by all people across the nation. Persistent disparities across race, sex, ethnicity, LGBTQ status, and disability reveal significant gaps in wages and economic opportunity, career advancement and job mobility, and health care access and rates of disease, among many other areas. Achieving equality will not happen by chance, nor will it occur solely through the impassioned rhetoric designed to garner votes during an election cycle. Rather, true equality requires intentional action that is informed by accurate data, research, and analysis.

Unfortunately, recent actions taken by the Trump administration have revealed a lack of commitment not only to ensuring the collection of much-needed, comprehensive data, but also to drawing important connections among data collection, civil rights enforcement, and equality. The administration has undermined data collection at multiple levels, weakening efforts to collect data about undercounted communities and working to undo reforms adopted to address discriminatory practices. If policymakers are serious about advancing equality and remedying inequality, they must commit to understanding the diverse experiences of people in different communities; using the available tools to measure differences in people’s experiences; taking concrete steps to remedy disparities when they occur; and accurately counting, collecting, and analyzing data about the individuals who comprise diverse communities across the country. Without such data, policymakers cannot determine whether disparities or discrimination exist, fully understand the scope of the problem, or identify which communities are in need of protection.

Gaps in data collection and disaggregation

Collection and disaggregation of data by factors such as race, sex, disability status, and sexual orientation are often inconsistent across federal agencies—and in some cases, the data are not collected at all. For example, not all federally supported surveys routinely allow respondents to share both their sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). Moreover, federal surveys such as the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey do not collect information on single LGBTQ individuals, making it nearly impossible to accurately understand the economic state of LGBTQ communities. Meanwhile, the constitutionally mandated U.S. census still requires respondents of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) descent and individuals who identify as Hispanic or Latino to select their race as “white,” rather than adding new categories that would allow them to self-identify with a more precise designation. The Office of Management and Budget has not adopted changes proposed by the U.S. Census Bureau aimed at improving the accuracy of data collected from Hispanic individuals. The recommendations would have replaced the current two-question format for collecting race and ethnicity data with a single, combined question to minimize confusion and allow respondents to better describe their racial and ethnic background.

While some agencies, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), collect workforce data on multiple factors such as race, ethnicity, and sex, there is not consistent reporting or analysis that is publicly available that would show important differences experienced by certain groups, such as women of color. Additionally, agencies do not have consistent definitions of disability or standardized eligibility criteria for a government-designated disability status. This lack of standardization makes it impossible to collect accurate information on the disability community and cross-reference individuals’ disability status with other demographic data, such as race or sex.

Similar concerns about data integrity and scope have been raised with regard to underinclusive worker classifications. For example, the wages of tipped workers are difficult to track accurately because tips are not counted in reported wages—and these inaccuracies disproportionately affect women, who represent 66 percent of all tipped workers. Employers are allowed to pay tipped employees a subminimum wage based on the assumption that workers will earn tips enabling them to meet the regular minimum wage. Although employers are required by law to make up the difference between tipped workers’ earned wages and the federal minimum wage, in practice, this rarely happens and is nearly impossible to track and enforce. The lack of accountability and visibility around the experiences of tipped minimum wage workers can make it harder to pinpoint illegal practices—such as wage theft or harassment—when they occur. Therefore, policy interventions such as eliminating the subminimum wage are also important for improving data collection.

The overall lack of routine, comprehensive data collection and disaggregation means that policymakers too often do not have the information necessary to understand disparities by race, sex, ethnicity, LGBTQ status, or disability in depth and to create responsive policy solutions to address them.

The Trump administration’s efforts to weaken data collection

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has been stubbornly persistent in its efforts to undermine data collection, enacting policies that have weakened efforts to collect better data on communities that are frequently undercounted and targeting vital reforms adopted to pinpoint discriminatory practices. Such actions only exacerbate concerns and skepticism about the administration’s commitment to enforcing critical civil rights protections and risk perpetuating problems that are already hard to detect.

Efforts to undermine data collection about individuals

Having access to comprehensive data about the individuals who comprise different communities is critical to gaining a better understanding of their experiences and the conditions under which they live. This information can help show where different communities are concentrated; reveal differences in important indicators, such as rates of disease and poverty; and identify where and how to effectively target community resources.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed eliminating questions about LGBTQ people from two critical surveys that could help reveal unique health disparities. After pushback from the public, the administration restored questions about sexual orientation on the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants survey but eliminated questions about LGBTQ Americans from another national survey—the Annual Program Performance Report for Centers for Independent Living. A few years later, the Social Security Administration proposed a rule that would create a new category under the existing Continuing Disability Reviews system and subject more than 4.4 million disabled individuals to burdensome reviews of their disability status.

The administration also halted revisions proposed for the 2020 census to collect information on individuals’ sexual orientation, gender identity, and MENA origin while attempting to add untested questions on citizenship status that would have severely undercounted immigrant communities. The two Obama-era proposals to collect information on SOGI and MENA heritage were the result of yearslong research conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Interagency Working Group for Improving Measurement of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity to address the dearth of comprehensive, national demographic data collected by administrative agencies in the federal government. Currently, only 1 in 6 LGBT adults can be identified as LGBT individuals from U.S. census data, and eliminating the proposed MENA categories could further hamper an accurate count of the U.S. population.

Efforts to undermine data collection about discriminatory practices

Data collection is also a critical tool for uncovering practices that perpetuate different forms of discrimination. Without crucial information disaggregated by factors such as race, sex, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, enforcement agencies such the EEOC and the U.S. Department of Labor cannot ensure that civil rights protections are being effectively enforced for all individuals.

In 2017, the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget directed the EEOC to stop implementation of a rule to collect pay data from employers that could help provide critical insight into discriminatory pay practices, an action that signaled the administration’s lack of commitment to combating longstanding pay disparities. Furthermore, under the Trump administration, other agencies have rolled back protections designed to address race, sex, and disability-based discrimination in housing and education, among other areas.

Gaps in civil rights protections and enforcement are particularly harmful for populations including women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and the disability community, all of which can face discrimination in the workplace based on their protected status. Moreover, collecting information on race, ethnicity, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and other factors is necessary to create evidence-based policies that address key disparities in health and economic security for these and other underserved communities.

Improving data collection in the United States

While there are a multitude of measures to collect better, more inclusive data about the United States’ diverse composition, the following actions could serve as important steps in the right direction:

  • At the federal level, policymakers can support policies such as the LGBT Data Inclusion Act, a federal bill that aims to improve federal population surveys by requiring agencies to collect voluntary, self-disclosed information on SOGI in every survey that include demographic data.
  • Policymakers can support bills that would counter efforts to undermine anti-discrimination enforcement in areas such as equal pay. For example, lawmakers should support the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would require regular, disaggregated pay data collection and identify any significant pay gaps among certain groups.
  • Policymakers can advocate for standardized and uniform federal definitions of disability that are inclusive of all types of disabilities, including those that may not be visible such as chronic pain.
  • At the state and local level, policymakers can engage with the 2020 census to ensure that it counts all individuals, especially hard-to-count populations such as the LGBTQ community and racial and ethnic minorities. At the national level, policymakers can continue to support the addition of a new MENA ethnic category on census surveys and support full funding for the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Employers, meanwhile, can voluntarily take steps to enhance and refine their pay data collection efforts, assess their compensation practices, and publicly report their results. For example, they can collect self-identification data on LGBTQ employees in their workplace and use these data to inform their workplace policies.

Regardless of the measures used, data collection should first and foremost be used in service of the communities from which that information is being collected. The research teams involved in developing methods and implementing surveys should comprise diverse groups of individuals with a variety of lived experiences, and all researchers should strive to accurately reflect the experiences of the communities they survey. They must also seek to address any personal and structural biases around race, sex, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, especially as they consider how census-based policies may affect historically marginalized communities. The federal government must work to ensure that data collection efforts are not misused to target or profile communities in a manner that would cause harm or deny services to communities in need. Moreover, the questions used in surveys must be racially and culturally sensitive in order to ensure that all individuals can effectively understand the concepts being measured. When appropriate, researchers should use guidance from respondents to inform the factors they measure. Preserving the privacy and anonymity of respondents and their data must also be a priority, especially for questions pertaining to SOGI and individualized pay information.

Conclusion

Comprehensive data collection and disaggregation of the nation’s diverse population is essential to vigorous civil rights enforcement and the broader goal of achieving equality for all. Therefore, if policymakers are seriously invested in eradicating inequality, they must prioritize comprehensive data collection and invest in the research necessary to fully implement it. Data must be collected on the basis of race, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability status, and other measures to help researchers and society at large gain a complete and accurate understanding of the nation’s demographic groups and their complex experiences. Without disaggregated data, however, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact nature of the disparities and discrimination faced by the nation’s most underserved populations and how these experiences differ across demographic groups.

The Trump administration’s failure to prioritize inclusive data collection is a step backward when it comes to achieving a meaningful and substantive commitment to equality. Future administrations can and must do better to understand the country’s rich diversity and the breadth of individuals’ experiences in order to ensure that federal laws are responsive to their needs and that U.S. institutions operate fairly for all.

Juli Adhikari is an advocacy associate for the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Jocelyn Frye is a senior fellow at the Center.