Changes to U.S. data collection on race, ethnicity could be a boon to public health

Research by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, other campus units contributed to the government’s revision process Nation, World + Society Research by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, other campus units contributed to the government’s revision process response to the nation’s growing diversity, the Biden administration announced March 28 that the government will change how it collects information about people’s race and ethnicity. The revisions, the first in nearly three decades, are aimed at creating more accurate and inclusive data to better inform policymaking, legal research efforts to address health disparities.

Ninez Ponce, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, said it was a landmark day for people who work on health data. "As our society evolves to become ever more multicultural and multiethnic," she said, "these new rules are a crucial step toward recognizing that and toward achieving health equity."

Ponce and other leaders at the center were among those who last year provided the White House’s Office of Management and Budget with detailed recommendations on the proposed changes, highlighting ways to improve the collection of health-related demographic data.

The resulting revisions, Ponce said, should help. They include the elimination of separate - and sometimes confusing - questions for selecting "race" and "ethnicity" in favor of a single question that allows respondents to choose multiple categories related to their identity, including new categories for those of Middle Eastern or North African descent. And, importantly, the government will be required collect further information on identity to ensure "disaggregation in the collection, tabulation and presentation of data."

That disaggregation could prove crucial to identifying health disparities and ensuring that communities get the programs and resources they need. Researchers at the center point to the experiences of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when data on these communities was subsumed in the overly broad "Asian" category. Most datasets showed Asians were in less jeopardy than other groups, but in the few states that disaggregated the data, it became clear that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were dying at some of the highest rates of any racial or ethnic group.

Having the ability to access detailed data on the diverse array of racial and ethnic subgroups and communities will aid fighting such "hidden" threats and improving public health.

? Read the full press release on the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research website.

How UCLA research on Afro-Latinos informed debate over the new categories While the new changes announced by the Office of Management and Budget were applauded by many, some organizations have argued that the new standards combining the race and ethnicity questions could cause confusion for groups like the Afro-Latino community - potentially diluting their visibility and downplaying the discrimination they face.

"By listing Latino ethnicity as co-equal with racial categories, Latinos are inaccurately portrayed as a population without racial differences, despite all the research showing how Black Latinos are treated differently from other Latinos," t’he Afro-Latino Coalition said in response to the White House announcement.

In its comment letter (PDF) arguing against the proposed changes and other communications, the coalition drew heavily on an April 2023 report by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Institute highlighting the experiences of the fast-growing Black Latino population in the U.S., which found that despite higher levels of educational attainment, this group experienced worse income and wealth indicators, along with other complex social inequalities.

The UCLA report was also featured on Latino/Hispanic Is Not a Race and Nancy López, a co-author of the report and professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, frequently cited the findings in media appearances on the new government standards, including in outlets like NPR, Univisión and Axios.