Advancing Data Equity for U.S. Territories

By Jae June Lee, Liz Lowe, Cara Brumfield, and Neil Weare

More than 3.6 million U.S. citizens and residents live in the five inhabited U.S. territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. These U.S. territories are home to more people than the five smallest states combined. Yet, these communities are conspicuously missing from the nation’s statistical data. Overlooked and undervalued by the federal government, the territories have lacked current, comprehensive, and accurate statistical data on their communities. This unequal treatment and the urgent need to address data disparities is explored in more detail in the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality’s brief, “Advancing Data Equity for U.S. Territories.”

Good data matters — and that is equally true in the territories as it is elsewhere in the nation. The 2020 Census revealed that the population across the territories has declined by 11.6 percent over the last decade due to high migration rates — a pattern similar to that of rural areas in the United States. Without accurate and current data, it is nearly impossible to analyze and explain the root causes of these population declines or the impacts of socioeconomic challenges, like job loss resulting in decreasing tax revenue and services provided.

The lack of data about the U.S. territories is a racial justice issue. The vast majority of the people living in the territories are people of color. In Puerto Rico, around 99 percent of the population identified as Hispanic. In American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and U.S. Virgin Islands, a majority of people identified as Asian or Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (NPHI).The U.S. territories are the only majority or plurality Pacific Islander jurisdictions in the nation: Roughly 15 percent of NHPI people live in the territories, as of 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic further exposed the need for quality data in the territories. When the pandemic upended labor markets, the Census Bureau added new questions to the Current Population Survey (CPS) to help equip policymakers, researchers, and advocates with actionable information and insights. However, there was a glaring problem: None of the U.S. territories are included in the CPS. Excluded from the nation’s premier source of labor force statistics, many territories had to turn to outdated and/or poorer quality sources of data — such as patchy administrative data provided by employers.

The relative absence of federal statistical data in U.S. territories also impacts researchers and policymakers’ ability to understand geographic classification, economic indicators, and various program-specific measures. For example, the Census Bureau’s annual report on poverty in the United States does not include the territories due to their exclusion from the CPS, which provides the basis of the bureau’s Official Poverty Measure (OPM) and the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). Most of the territories do not receive the American Community Survey (ACS), which releases new data every year, and instead rely on the once-in-a-decade census “long form” to produce comparable poverty estimates. Similarly, other critical assessments, like Guam’s latest Social Vulnerability Index, published in 2021, relied on limited and outdated 2010 Census data. Some federal agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, use the census long form to calculate statistics such as Fair Market Rents for most of the territories but then annually update the statistics based on national ACS estimates — which are unlikely to reflect specific local trends and developments.

In recent decades, the federal government has taken some strides towards addressing these data inequities. Puerto Rico receives more state-like treatment in the statistical system (partly due to the 1992 presidential memorandum signed by President George H.W. Bush). For example, Puerto Rico is the only territory included in the Census Bureau’s population estimates program and in the ACS — via the Puerto Rico Community Survey. While more needs to be done to fully include Puerto Rico in the federal statistical system, the 1992 presidential memorandum provides an example of action that the Biden administration could emulate and extend to all of the U.S. territories.

Additionally, the Territories Statistics Collection Equity Act (H.R. 8593) — proposed by House Natural Resources Ranking Member Raul Grijalva and the non-voting members of the 117th Congress who represent each U.S. territory — would direct the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy to collect and publish statistics about the U.S. territories in the same manner as states. This bill was reintroduced earlier this year by Grijalva in the 118th Congress. The General Services Administration (GSA) 10x digital services project is also exploring ways to create more inclusive, accessible, and equitable digital services for people living in the U.S. territories. The White House should prioritize improving digital services to residents in the U.S. territories and removing obstacles to data collection activities and service delivery, such as the lack of standardized postal address lists.

Although these proposals are encouraging, there is still more work to be done. Millions of U.S. citizens and residents living in the territories are rendered invisible in our federal statistical system due to their unequal treatment. Addressing these data disparities is a critical task that requires action from the Biden administration and Congress. Every individual — regardless of where they live in the United States including the territories — should be included and recognized in the nation’s federal statistical system and have their distinct needs effectively addressed.

Jae June Lee is a senior policy analyst and Liz Lowe is a research assistant at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. Cara Brumfield is the director of income and work supports at the Center for Law and Social Policy. Neil Weare is the co-director and co-founder of Right to Democracy.