How States Are — and Are Not — Working to Improve Race and Ethnicity Data Collection

A new report from The Leadership Conference Education Fund — “Disaggregation Nation: A Landscape Review of State Race & Ethnicity Data Collection” — reviews laws and pending bills in 50 states and the District of Columbia to identify which states go beyond federal standards with respect to the collection of disaggregated race and ethnicity data.

In order for policymakers, foundations, businesses, and nonprofit organizations to be able to understand the landscape in which they operate, and to make well-informed evidence-based decisions, we need detailed data on various populations in order to more appropriately target solutions, resources, and services. Additionally, in order to understand the rich tapestry that serves as the fabric of our nation, and to allow for populations to be seen, more granular data — that is, disaggregated data — are key.

Detailed data on race and ethnicity are necessary for public health, for example, to adequately identify, assess, and address health inequities and structural racism. Data disaggregation allows public health professionals to create appropriate, efficient, and equitable interventions to improve health outcomes. Having disaggregated data also enables public health agencies to evaluate programs and policies to ensure effectiveness.

Federal law (OMB Statistical Policy Directive No. 15, which was last updated in 1997) sets minimum categories for the federal government when collecting data on race and ethnicity data. States have the authority to collect data on additional ethnic and racial subgroups, so long as this data can be aggregated into the standard categories when shared with the federal government.

As documented in “Disaggregation Nation,” 13 states currently have at least one law that requires disaggregation of race or ethnicity data beyond the current OMB requirements. Four of these laws were passed in 2023 — in Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Nevada — indicating increased attention and support for data disaggregation laws.

Connecticut, Oregon, and Washington have the most expansive lists of race and ethnicity subgroups, with each state requiring collection of data on more than 35 race and ethnicity subgroups. Massachusetts’ new law requires collection of a broad range of race and ethnicity data by all state agencies, rather than only those affiliated with health care or public health.

The underlying research for this report, which was completed in September 2023, examined the existence of laws, not their implementation or effectiveness. However, some weaknesses are apparent on the face of the law. For example, New York requires disaggregation of named Asian and Pacific Islander groups OR allows a category for “other Asian and Pacific Island group.” Allowing an “other” category, rather than specifically naming Asian and Pacific Islander subgroups, is likely to lead to less robust data collection. 

The report includes information about the 25 states with laws, pending bills, or advocacy activity relevant to data disaggregation by race or ethnicity. In 17 states, research conducted for this report uncovered no laws or bills relevant to data disaggregation based on race or ethnicity.

Though most states do not currently have laws requiring disaggregation of race or ethnicity data, recent momentum in the states, and other ongoing advocacy and legislative activity, may ultimately lead to further progress in states across the country. Alongside federal efforts, this vital state-level work must and will continue and will be further bolstered by the revision of federal standards. With this ongoing work, we will be able to gain a greater understanding of the communities that comprise our nation and allow for our datasets to be more reflective and representative of who we are.