House panel hears about adding LGBT to census survey
by Michael K. Lavers
The head of the U.S. Census Bureau testified before a House subcommittee in Washington, D.C., on March 6 about ongoing efforts to streamline the agency and to ensure the data it collects accurately reflects the country's population.
Robert M. Groves, Ph.D., director of the census bureau, specifically spoke about the American Community Survey. First used as a successor to the census long form in 2005, the survey asks respondents a series of questions about their age, sex, race, family and relationships, socio-economic and education status, disability, housing and other factors. Groves noted that between 97 percent and 98 percent of the 3.5 million households that receive the American Community Survey each year take part in it.
"The ACS provides relevant and unbiased data products, available to everyone," said Groves. "It is how the American people and our elected officials can best measure how our nation and their community is progressing on a year-by-year basis. The ACS data products give businesses the statistical information they need to create jobs, plan for the future, establish new businesses and improve our economy."
The survey currently does not include any questions that specifically ask about sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, but activists continue to lobby the census bureau, the White House, and other government agencies to conduct LGBT-specific data collection.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced last June that it plans to add a question on sexual orientation to the National Health Interview Survey by 2013. The agency also plans to begin collecting data based on gender identity and expression, but it has yet to provide a specific timeline.
"Having a sexual orientation question would provide substantial new opportunities at understanding potential health disparities around sexual orientation," said Gary Gates, Ph.D., of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
The Williams Institute last year released a series of reports that documented the number of gay and lesbian couples who live in a particular state. The census bureau currently includes same-sex couples within "husband/wife" and "unmarried partner" households, but the agency has conceded the questions that it uses to collect this data are problematic. Gates is hopeful that the addition of sexual orientation to the National Health Interview Survey could provide the agency with an effective blueprint upon which it can develop an LGBT-inclusive questionnaire.
"It would be really useful to have a larger national survey that we could assess the accuracy of these data," said Gates, referring back to an inclusive National Health Interview Survey and its potential impact on the American Community Survey and other census bureau forms. "That would help in that effort with the larger demographic surveys."
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has also been active in the effort to implement a more LGBT-inclusive census.
The organization and other LGBT groups launched their "Queer the Census" initiative in 2010 after the census bureau announced it would count same-sex married couples as married.
"We wanted to make sure the LGBT community knew about this change and that they should participate in the census," said Brad Jacklin, project director at the Task Force.
Another component of the initiative that re-launched last October is to highlight the need to collect LGBT-specific data.
The federal government allocates $450 billion each year based on health, educational and employment disparities in data that it collects from the American Community Survey and other research. Roughly 42,000 people have signed onto a pledge that calls upon the White House and members of Congress to support the collection of LGBT-specific collection data in the census and other surveys.
"From a macro level, the LGBT community is missing out on services that are targeted for other populations because we are not counted on those surveys," said Jacklin. "We anecdotally know that the LGBT community suffers a number of health disparities, a number of employment discrimination disparities. Getting better data collection on the community, to be able to point out to the policy makers that ... there's an actual need here – LGBT people aren't going to their doctors because they're afraid of discrimination, which leads to poor health outcomes. Having that form of information gives us a little more force when weĠre talking to the agencies or members of Congress."
Both Jacklin and Gates said they expect that the census bureau will not consider the addition of questions related to sexual orientation and gender identity until 2017 – three years before it conducts the next census.
"My hope is that by getting the question on the National Health Interview Survey will ... help in efforts to then encourage them to add those kinds of questions to their more kind of routine demographic surveys like the American Community Survey," stressed Gates.