Revisions to Federal Standards for Collecting and Reporting Data on Race and Ethnicity: 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 have important implications for identifying needs and directing resources and efforts to address those needs.

On March 29, 2024, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced revisions to Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity, which apply to federal data collection and reporting. The revisions include using a single combined question for race and ethnicity, adding Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) as a minimum category, clarifying instructions for individuals to select multiple racial and ethnic categories that represent their identity, and requiring collection of more detail beyond the minimum categories. In addition, the Standards require that data tabulation procedures result in the production of as much information on race and/or ethnicity as possible, including data for people reporting multiple racial and/or ethnic categories.

The updated standards are effective for all new federal racial and ethnic data collection and reporting as of March 28, 2024, and existing racial and ethnic data must be updated as soon as possible but no later than March 28, 2029. OMB indicates that these revisions are intended to result in more accurate and useful race and ethnicity data across the federal government and are the first revisions that have been made since the last directive was issued in 1997. This brief provides an overview of these changes and their implications.

Why Were the Standards Revised?

Data and research show that a growing number of people do not identify with the previously used OMB race and ethnicity categories. These standards were last updated in 1997, with subsequent guidance provided by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2011, which called for additional granularity in the collection and reporting of racial and ethnic data where possible for surveys conducted by HHS. The diversity of the U.S. population has grown significantly since the standards were last updated in 1997, as the share of people identifying as multiracial has increased and immigration patterns have evolved. Research suggests that under the previous standards, some people with Hispanic ethnicity and people from the Middle East and North Africa  selected other race because they did not identify with the available categories. Moreover, recent refinements to how the Census and other national surveys ask about race and ethnicity within the previous standards 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 2022, the share of people identifying as some other race grew from 5% to 7%, while the share reporting two or more races increased from 3% to 13% (Figure 1). Among the Hispanic population, the share who identified as some other race grew from 28% to 35% between 2010 and 2022, and there was a ten-fold jump in the share reporting as multiracial, from 4% to 43%. During this period, the share of Hispanic people identifying as White plummeted from 64% to 17%. 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 (including write-in responses), 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.

What was the Process for Updating these Standards?

In June 2022, OMB established a Federal Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards to review the racial and ethnic data collection and reporting standards with a goal of updating them to better reflect the diversity of the nation. At that time, there were growing calls among federal, state, and local health agencies; health systems; health information technology experts, and commercial health insurance plans to revisit and revise the standards. The Working Group developed initial proposals and questions, which were published in a Federal Register notice in January 2023 to provide the opportunity for public input. In developing the new standards, the Working Group examined existing research and evidence, reviewed public comments submitted in response to the notice, and conducted listening sessions and town halls with stakeholders and members of the public. Based on this process, the Working Group outlined final recommendations to OMB, which informed OMB’s final decisions.

How Have the Standards Been Revised?

In March 2024, OMB announced revisions to the Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity that reflect the recommendations of the Working Group. Examples of how race and/or ethnicity data would be collected under these new standards are included in Appendix A. Key changes from the previous standards include:

  • Moving to a single combined race and ethnicity question. Under the previous standards, there were separate questions for individuals to identify race and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. Research suggests that having separate questions for race and ethnicity confused some respondents who may not view the two concepts as distinct. Studies have found that many Hispanic or Latino individuals view their Hispanic or Latino identity as their race and do not identify with the race categories provided in a separate question. Many commenters expressed that moving to a single race and ethnicity question would help provide a more accurate count of the Hispanic or Latino population by reducing the number of blank responses or those classified as “some other race.” In the 2020 Census, four in ten (44%) individuals who selected Hispanic or Latino as their ethnicity did not report a race or were classified as some other race. Some commenters expressed concern that a combined race and ethnicity question may contribute to a loss of data for Afro-Latino individuals, as respondents may solely select Hispanic or Latino. However, Census Bureau research did not find that use of a single combined question led to a significant difference in estimates of the Afro-Latino population.
  • Adding MENA as a new minimum category. Prior to the 2024 update, the “White” racial category included people with European, Middle Eastern, or North African origins. However, there have been longstanding calls by the MENA community and the public to provide MENA as a separate category since most people of Middle Eastern or North African origin do not view themselves as White. Consistent with these perspectives, prior research shows a significant reduction in the share of people reporting some other race and White when a separate MENA category is offered compared to when there is no separate MENA category.
  • Requiring detailed collection of racial and ethnic categories as the default. Under the revisions, agencies are required to collect the detailed categories outlined in the standards by default. These detailed categories represent the largest population groups within the broader minimum racial and/or ethnic categories. An agency may request an exemption to the requirement to collect more detailed data if it determines that the potential benefit would not justify the additional burden to the agency and the public or the additional risk to privacy or confidentiality. Under the prior standards, detailed racial and ethnic data collection was encouraged but not required. Overall, the majority of commenters supported the collection of more detailed data beyond the minimum categories as a default, citing the diverse experiences of groups within the broader categories and the importance of having detailed data to measure differences in health care outcomes. Some commenters expressed concern regarding privacy risks, respondent burden, and the burden on agencies.
  • Modifying question instructions to encourage respondents to select all categories that reflect their identity. Specifically, question instructions must explicitly state that respondents should, “Select all that apply.” In cases in which detailed categories are collected with write-in responses, instructions must further encourage respondents to enter additional details, with instructions to, “Select all that apply and enter additional details in the spaces below.”

The revisions also make updates to terminology including removing use of “majority” and “minority” terminology (except when statistically accurate or when legal requirements call for use of those terms) and removing “Other” from the “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” category title. They also make some revisions to definitions for the categories, including but not limited to removing “Negro” from the Black or African American definition, replacing “Far East” with “Central or East Asia” in the Asian definition, and removing the phrase “who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment” from the American Indian or Alaksa Native definition.

Consistent with recommendations from the Working Group, OMB refrained from establishing requirements regarding a specific order for presenting racial and/or ethnic categories, continuing to leave this to agencies’ discretion. It notes that agencies generally order the categories alphabetically or by population size and that future research may help inform the best approach for ordering response options.

What are the Standards for Presenting Data on Race and/or Ethnicity?

OMB further specifies that agencies must use procedures that result in the production of as much information on race and/or ethnicity as possible, including for people reporting multiple categories, while still maintaining data quality and privacy. It encourages agencies to use one of three approaches for presenting data, including:

  • Alone or in combination. This approach groups all individuals belonging to a racial or ethnic group, whether alone or in combination with another racial or ethnic group. For example, an individual who reports their identity as both White and Black would be included in both the “White alone or in combination category” and the “Black alone or in combination” category.
  • Most frequent multiple responses. Under this approach, information is reported for as many race and ethnicity combinations as possible. In addition to the seven minimum race and/or ethnicity categories alone, the agency would report data for all combinations of racial and ethnic groups (e.g., American Indian or Alaska Native and Hispanic or Latino) that meet sufficient response thresholds or are of specific interest.
  • Combined Multiracial and/or Multiethnic category. This approach presents data for the seven minimum race and/or ethnicity categories and groups all other respondents who identify multiple race and/or ethnicity categories into a single Multiracial and/or Multiethnic category. Since this approach provides limited understanding of the diversity of the population, OMB indicates that agencies should use this approach in combination with one of the alternative approaches above to meet the overarching requirement to provide as much race and/or ethnicity information as possible, including for people who report more than one category.

Looking Ahead

The updated guidelines issued by OMB are effective for all new data collection that includes race and/or ethnicity questions as of March 28, 2024, and all existing data must be updated to the new standards “as soon as possible but, no later than March 28, 2029.” Each agency must develop an Action Plan on Race and Ethnicity Data within 18 months of the notice of the revised standards and make them publicly available upon submission to OMB.

Bridging challenges are expected as the implementation of these guidelines takes effect, with agencies expressing via public input the importance of “tools to support bridging” to compare race and ethnicity data collected under the 2024 guidelines and the 1997 guidelines. To address these concerns, the OMB Working Group has provided bridging guidelines for federal agencies. Some commenters have also expressed concern regarding the tabulation of different racial and/or ethnic categories including how to tabulate responses for individuals who select multiple race and ethnicity categories and whether Hispanic or Latino responses will be presented separately from other racial categories in civil rights reporting.

OMB has also identified areas of future research, which include, among others, how to encourage respondents to select multiple race and/or ethnicity categories by enhancing question design, how to collect high quality and useful data related to descent from people who were enslaved in the United States, the optimal order for presenting the minimum categories, and how to collect race and/or ethnicity data consistently across different languages. OMB also indicates it will establish an Interagency Committee on Race and Ethnicity Statistical Standards, that will undertake regular reviews of the standards on a ten-year cycle and provide an opportunity for public input. It also may conduct a review at any time outside of those regular review periods.

Appendix: Examples of Race and/or Ethnicity Questions Consistent with Revised OMB Standards

10368 - Appendix Figure 1Source: Office of Management and Budget, Revisions to OMB’s Statistical Policy Directive No. 15: Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity
10368 - Appendix Figure 2Source: Office of Management and Budget, Revisions to OMB’s Statistical Policy Directive No. 15: Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity

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