Why Collecting Disaggregated Data for Native Communities Matters

By Saundra Mitrovich and Steph Glascock

While the year might be new, our “Data Disaggregation Deconstructed” series continues to explore ways in which data disaggregation can help illuminate the barriers faced by vulnerable communities. This month we explore the American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) population — one of the nation’s fastest growing communities.

According to the 2020 Census, the number of American Indians and Alaska Natives increased nearly 12 times as fast as the total U.S. population, growing by 86.5 percent from 5.2 million in 2010 to 9.7 million in 2020. These communities exist in all 50 states, with 21 states having a population of more than 100,000 AIAN residents in 2016.

Despite its significant and growing population, the AIAN community experiences the largest census undercount of any population group. In 2020, AIAN people living on reservations or in Native villages were undercounted by 5.64 percent, substantially more than any other population group. The consequences of past undercounts, such as in the 2020 Census, have not only denied representation in non-tribal governments to hundreds of thousands of Indigenous citizens, but have limited appropriations for resources including infrastructure, housing, education, and community development programs administered by tribal governments.

Moreover, the absence of consistent, coordinated, and disaggregated data on AIAN populations stifles efforts to advance justice, equity, and inclusion. The recommendations produced by the Biden administration’s Equitable Data Working Group in its April 2022 report, “A Vision for Equitable Data,” included calling for the generation of disaggregated statistical estimates for studying and measuring historically underserved population groups such as the AIAN population. Even though federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, also collect data regarding Indigenous communities, the surveys conducted by the Census Bureau provide larger samples that allow for data disaggregation and intersectional analysis.

Centering and involving American Indian and Alaska Native people in federal data collection and analysis is crucial. The current lack of engagement and representation in national data hinders the ability of policymakers, researchers, and tribal leaders to fully address the issues facing Native American communities, especially with respect to health equity. Many state health agencies only capture health data by broad racial and ethnic categories such as White, Black, or Hispanic/Latino. In doing so, important data on disease prevalence, health care services, health insurance coverage, and cause of death with respect to AIAN populations is extremely limited. Other state health agencies do not even include a Native or AIAN category for data collection. Given that Native Americans have a lower life expectancy than other populations — which has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic — consistent data collection standards are necessary to improve population-level health. Gathering and making accessible data that is accurate and representative of tribal populations is a necessary first step towards promoting comparisons and analyses that lead to better outcomes for Native youth and families.

The decennial census, which focuses on “a basic headcount and minimal demographic data,” collects data through five broad categories: Black, White, American Indian/Alaska Native, Latinx, and Asian American/Pacific Islander. The AIAN category has been its own population group on the census since 1860 and individual reservations have been tabulated since 1970. Subsequently, under Executive Order 13175, the U.S. government committed itself to consultation and coordination with Indian tribal governments on issues including the census. This collaboration and active inclusion of Native voices is necessary to ensure that AIAN voters have an equal voice in the political process of non-tribal elections. Tribal nations likewise use this data for a wide range of research uses, including planning facilities, businesses, and programs for their communities.

Yet, citizens of the 574 federally recognized tribes are at a disproportionate risk of being undercounted given the many unique challenges they face. Many reservations are located in geographically isolated areas, far from urban neighborhoods and lacking connection to main roads. Consequently, the American Community Survey estimates that approximately one-third of the nation’s total AIAN population, roughly 1.7 million out of 5.4 million people, lives in areas in the bottom 20 percent of census mail return rates — otherwise known as hard-to-count census tracts. On tribal lands, lack of traditional mailing addresses and high rates of homelessness contribute to low mail response. Indeed, the 2016 American Community Survey found that the AIAN population experiences higher rates of homelessness than other population groups as only 52.9 percent of single-race AIAN householders owned their own home, compared to 63.1 percent of the total population. Compounding this problem, socioeconomic barriers make it harder for enumerators to reach the AIAN population in urban areas as well: The AIAN community experiences the highest rate of poverty of any population group, encounters significant barriers to education access, suffers from high unemployment rates, and is among the nation’s youngest population groups. These factors make it more difficult to ensure Indigenous communities are accurately counted and represented in the census.

The Census Bureau must do everything in its power to actively include, count, and involve Native Americans in the census. Disaggregating census data by centering Native Americans can advance a deeper understanding of the realities facing Native communities, as well as the systemic levers that might be used to generate better outcomes for them. Inclusive and accessible data collection processes ensure that local resources are harnessed to meet the needs of our nation’s first peoples.

Saundra Mitrovich is the director of external engagement at the National Congress of American Indians. Steph Glascock was a fall 2022 undergraduate intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

This blog is the sixth in the series ”Data Disaggregation Deconstructed,” which explores how data disaggregation in various policy areas can enhance equity. The series is based on The Leadership Conference Education Fund’s report “Information Nation: The Need for Improved Federal Civil Rights Data Collection.” The report urges the Biden administration to restore and expand the scope, frequency, and public accessibility of federal data collections in order to identify equity gaps and solutions to remedy them.