PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"The PRRAC Federal Data Reconnaissance Project,"

by Joe Lucero & Chester Hartman January/February 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

In the bad old days---before the 60s -those concerned with civil rights in the United States often were wary of demands for data regarding racial and ethnic identification. Realistically, they worried that providing a photo or answering a question on race or ethnicity would lead to discrimination: the job, the housing, the school admission would be denied if it were known that the applicant was black, Jewish, etc. Identifying information was a real and potential route to second-class treatment. (That this sort of thing is not just old-hat history is revealed in the recent controversy and litigation over Shannon Faulkner's admission to The Citadel: Ms. Faulkner was admitted
originally because her surname was not gender-specific.)

With the Civil Rights Movement, real change has occurred. The adoption by states, cities and the federal government of anti-discrimination laws, ordinances and regulations has created a climate wherein data have become a potential tool for enforcing equal treatment. Not only can individual remedies be pursued, but patterns of inequality can be identified, as a first step to seeking remedies. As more overt discrimination withered away, to be replaced by more subtle and underground means, so-called "patterns and practices" data take on greater utility. And no longer is there a need to show intentional discrimination. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination in employment, prohibits actions that have a discriminatory impact (unless dictated by business necessity), regardless of intention. Systemic, institutional dissemination can thus be attacked. Individual case complaints are not the only route to just treatment. Housing, employment. education, health care and income maintenance programs all can be successfully monitored, and challenged, providing the data are there to demonstrate how these programs are working. Data become the key. We can identify specific corporations and whole industries where minorities are excluded or relegated to low-level positions. School segregation and discrimination patterns can be identified. The racial workings of the housing subsidy system can be revealed: while the federal government, through the FHA, no longer openly and actively promotes and condones racial segregation and restrictive covenants, urban renewal, public housing and other community development housing subsidy programs have been producing remarkably similar patterns. Hospitals and clinics funded through federal health care dollars can be shown to be supporting inadequate facilities and services for minority and poor clients.

Not surprisingly, as the nation's racial climate changed in the 1980s and the national Administration became less sensitive to these issues, in fact hostile to them, data collection efforts were Severely curtailed often tinder the bland, unassailable theme of "paperwork reduction." The impact of this information cutback has been profound: no longer are advocacy groups in a position to assemble hard evidence to back observable or anecdotally related instances of discriminatory or ineffective programs.

It is this climate that led PRRAC to undertake a large-scale research project to gain, as a starting foothold on the problem, a clear picture of how deficient the data picture really is.

The rationale for collecting and disseminating, inaccessible form, accurate and complete data on the workings of
government programs is unassailable, and ought to be supported regardless of partisan thinking or position. If
Congress passes programs and the Administration (as well as states and localities) carries out these mandates, by any principle of good government we need to know how we are doing. And only the government has both the resources and legal mandate to collect this information. In a nation with an overt commitment to racial equality and to relieving and eliminating poverty, we need to know just how well or badly the very programs designed for this purpose are functioning, how well or badly our tax dollars arc being spent. Good faith efforts or assumptions of program effectiveness are not enough. There certainly are enough examples and incidents showing that discriminatory treatment still exists to warrant closer and more comprehensive scrutiny: the Vidor, Texas public housing scandal, to name just one particularly egregious case.

It is astonishing to realize how little our government keeps track of the impact of its programs on minority and poor recipients. And it is so easy to collect the information that would be the starting point for a decent tracking system. The government now requires a large amount of record-keeping for all such programs, whether it is handing out a $200 Medicare check, a Section 8 housing certificate or a higher education loan. And yet it refuses in all too many cases to collect race data, and often income data as well.

(The Madison-Hughes v. Shadlala lawsuit in which PRRAC appears as amicus curiae, see p. 6 highlights a blatant example of destructive "color-blindness." The newly redrafted "Universal Claims Form" for all government medical assistance has no race data at all! And appeals to the Clinton Administration's HHS, 0MB and other government agencies have fallen on deaf ears. How on earth can we develop a good evaluation tracking system for the race-and-poverty impact of government health dollars if the government itself refuses even to collect this information?)

Once America rids itself of institutional racism should this ever come to pass -then an argument for not collecting race data may make some sense. But as long as race, ethnicity and poverty are such salient features and variables in all aspects of our society. we must keep careful track of these factors if we ever are to combat racism and poverty successfully and systematically.

There are of course important and legitimate questions as to how such data are collected and how, and by whom, race is defined --our continuing symposium on that topic in this, the previous and the upcoming issues of P&R deals forthrightly with this knotty problem. But only with this baseline of information do we have thc starter tools to craft strategies and programs to combat poverty and racism effectively.

From the governments viewpoint, correcting program defects and revising efforts so as to bring about more successful results seems an obvious imperative. If government is intransigent or resists carrying out stated mandates, then advocacy groups must have a basis for bringing demands for remedial relief in the courts, in administrative actions and before the public.

In the post-November 8 climate, our demands for good data become even more urgent. The coming demise of the House Subcommittee on Census & Population is a bad sign, as is the new emphasis on "paperwork reduction" tucked away in the "Job Creation & Wage Enhancement Act" (sic), one of the ten "Contract With America" bills Rep. Gingrich and crew have introduced (see the lead item in the "Miscellaneous" category of this issue's Resource Section).


The PRRAC
Research Project


Against the background of this understanding of the importance of research and data collection, PRRAC in 1993 launched its federal Data Reconnaissance Project. The Project evaluates the extent to which federal data sources in four areas-health care, housing, education and income security-accurately reflect the status of communities of color and low-income communities to which such programs are directed.

Results from this data reconnaissance reveal that while extensive data on race and poverty exist, they often are incomplete, inaccurate, inconsistent, inaccessible and far from "user friendly." Furthermore, data collection at the federal level often tracks only race or socioeconomic status, rather than both variables.

Additionally, our research project documents the dearth of meaningful information useful for our multi-cultural, multi-racial society. In a social and cultural landscape where the terms Hispanic and Asian Pacific Islander can refer to any number of distinct ethnic communities, the standard "Black," "White," and "Other" categories leave out whole segments of the population.

The research consisted of a comprehensive canvass of relevant primary and secondary data sources and databases in each of the four substantive areas. Data sources were evaluated for content, design, periodicity, medium, information on distinct race/ethnicity categories, and information on income and socioeconomic status. The research also probed the extent to which data collection is statutorily or administratively mandated and actual adherence to such mandates.

The housing element was conducted by Anne Shlay, Co-Director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies, Temple University and Charles King of George Washington University. The education element was carried out by James McPartland and Nettie Legiers of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. The health element was conducted by Carol Korenbrot, Ayesha (Jill and Dana Hughes of the Institute for Health Policy Studies, University of California-San Francisco. Income security programs were studied by Brett Brown and Nancy Snyder of Child Trends.

The research findings varied with each element; in some areas, data collection and dissemination practices are better than in others, Some representative findings include:
· In many instances, massive information systems remain in hard copy form, requiring manual tabulation.
· There is rarely a central source for obtaining data or even information on what data exist: the present system requires asking around to identify the "right" people. Willingness to make available data or information about the existence of data often is a function of a particular individual's willingness to be cooperative. FOIA requests are often needed to obtain information that ought to be publicly and easily available.
· Housing and education data systems were most adversely impacted during the Reagan-Bush years.
· Many important data systems e.g., IRS/Treasury Dept. data do not track race' ethnicity-.
· Year-to-year variations in the sample coverage and survey content of various data systems make trend analysis difficult.
· At present there arc no federal data collection activities to measure in detail the educational program content and pedagogy for identified schools and school districts that are suitable for civil rights compliance monitoring and follow-up investigation.
· No baseline data exist for many of the "National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Objectives" set forth in the HHS Health People 2000 document-and these objectives omit many of the specific health risks dispropor
tionately affecting low-income people and people of color.
· The decennial Census does not identify participation in individual government aid programs.
· The Census gathers race and ethnicity information in different form from that collected in many other federal surveys.
Some broad recommendations from the four studies include:
· Sustained and expanded funding support for federal data systems: increased accessibility and user-friendliness of existing data sources;
· Increased dialogue among researchers, those determining the research agenda, advocates and communities. so that a more unified and common "research language" can emerge;
· Development and use of new and innovative technologies to streamline use and accessibility of data;
· Development of a central federal database repository;
· Collaborative efforts among federal agencies to develop databases that cut across issues and areas: and,
· Increased and over-sampling of newer and growing populations among them. Asian Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics.

Our Advocacy Agenda

Our approach to advocacy is multi-faceted and invokes organizing among the nation's leading civil rights and anti-poverty formations. Our initial step was an Oct. 27 meeting convened by the Compliance & Enforcement Committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (chaired by Charles Kamasaki of the National Council of La Raza). Some 40 organizational representatives attended, representing not only the major civil rights organizations but anti-poverty groups such as the Children's Defense Fund, the Center on Law & Social Policy and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Copies of the individual research reports were distributed for comment and policy change recommendations. These are being collated into a final summary document, which will outline the key research findings and present primary and secondary recommendations.

Follow-up steps involve key-level contacts with Clinton Administration officials at 0MB, HUD, HHS, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, designed to raise the level of compliance and enforcement of data collection mechanisms, and to encourage changes to better serve minority and poor beneficiaries. Similar contacts will be made with the relevant Congressional committees and state legislatures, with an eye to strengthening statutory support for compliance and changes in the way data are collected. Finally, strategic use of media will be an integral component of our advocacy effort, in order to raise the profile of this issue among policy makers and the general public.

Communities at the grassroots will be an integral part of this process. We will help them make clear to advocates, service providers and policy-makers what they need, and assist them in identifying what kinds of data are necessary to meet their needs.

We also hope. through this Project, to make advocacy groups at all levels aware of the data sources that now exist, how they can be accessed, and how to use them to their best advantage.

Broader Civil Rights Implications

The beneficiaries of this project are many, but start with communities living with poverty, racial discrimination and spatial isolation. Programs aimed at these areas can be more effective once we have data revealing who is being served by such programs, how program beneficiary demographics are changing, and how, in turn, these programs need to further tailor or redesign their functions to serve a changing population based on racial, cultural and economic indicators. This benefit accrues not only to the federal government but to community advocates, philanthropy and the private sector as well.

From a broader civil rights perspective, everyone has something to gain from a better understanding of data that accurately track progress and development of communities that have been historically disenfranchised. If we do not have these data, there is little or no way to maintain basic civil rights, and demonstrating the effects of discriminatory practices is made only more difficult as the face of the nation continues to change in both race and class terms.

In sum, movement on and renewed dedication to the issue of accurate data collection and dissemination is a function of will-social, economic and, perhaps most important, political. PRRAC's Federal Data Reconnaissance Project is a vehicle to coordinate efforts on all of these fronts. But in order to succeed, investment in this issue needs to take root within communities across the board - local, STate and national. Success at reinvigorating within the Beltway a commitment to data collection and dissemination is directly related to success at developing commitment outside of it. This issue must be a priority in communities and among advocates for whom the elimination of poverty and racial discrimination is the end use of clear and accurate data.

Chester Hartman is Director of Research at PRRAC. chartman@prrac.org
 
[4189]

 
Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List