Proposed Changes to Federal Standards for Collecting and Reporting Race/Ethnicity Data: What Are They and Why do they Matter?

Data are a cornerstone for efforts to advance health equity. How we ask for, analyze, and report information on race and ethnicity affects our ability to understand the racial and ethnic composition of our nation’s population and our ability to identify and address racial disparities in health and health care. The accuracy and precision of such data has important implications for identifying needs and directing resources and efforts to address those needs.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently released initial proposals to update the minimum standards for collecting and presenting data on race and ethnicity for all federal reporting. The release of these proposals represents the next step in an ongoing process to update the standards in ways that better reflect how people self-identify and allow for a more accurate representation of the population. These standards were last updated in 1997, with subsequent guidance provided by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2011, which calls for additional granularity in the collection and reporting of racial and ethnic data where possible for surveys conducted by HHS.

Since the standards were last updated in 1997, the diversity of the population has grown, the share of people identifying as multiracial has increased, and immigration patterns have evolved. Race is a social construct, and individuals’ views of their racial and ethnic identity are shaped by a variety of factors, including their perceptions of race, upbringing, family connections, community, physical appearance, and perceptions of how others view them. Fitting into a specific box for a racial and ethnic category is becoming even more challenging as the diversity of the U.S. population grows and more people identify as multiracial. Reflecting these shifts, there have been calls to revisit and revise these standards.

Data and research show that a growing number of people do not identify with the current official OMB race categories. For example, research suggest people with Hispanic ethnicity and people from the Middle East and North Africa may select other race because they do not identify with the available racial categories. Moreover, recent refinements to how the Census and other national surveys ask about race and ethnicity within the existing standards have resulted in increased measures of population diversity, largely due to increases in the shares of people reported as some other race or multiracial, particularly among the Hispanic population.

Specifically, data from the American Community Survey show that between 2010 and 2021, the share of people identified as some other race grew from 5% to 7%, while the share reported as two or more races spiked from 3% to 13% (Figure 1). Among the Hispanic population, the share who were identified as some other race grew from 28% to 35% between 2010 and 2021, and there was a ten-fold jump in the share reported as multiracial, from 4% to 44%. During this period, the share of Hispanic people identified as White plummeted from 64% to 16%. The Census Bureau indicates that many of these differences were largely due to changes in the design, data processing, and coding of the race and ethnicity questions over this period, highlighting the powerful impact of these decisions. The process changes also make it challenging to identify how much of the observed change is due to actual demographic shifts.

The proposed changes to the federal minimum standards aim to address this shifting landscape by newly providing a separate racial category for people who identify as Middle Eastern or North African and moving to collect race and ethnicity through a combined single question instead of asking about Hispanic or Latino ethnicity in a separate question from race. Other proposed changes include requiring the collection of detailed racial and ethnic categories, eliminating the use of certain outdated and offensive terminologies, as well as discontinuing the use of the terms “majority” and “minority.”

These proposed changes would likely impact the measures of the diversity of our population and measures of disparities in health and health care, which ultimately influence where resources and efforts are directed. These proposals are preliminary, and the OMB is seeking feedback on them through a public comment process. Monitoring and understanding the outcomes of these processes will be important for equity efforts going forward.

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