The coronavirus pandemic highlights the importance of disaggregating U.S. data by race and ethnicity

A U.S. postal worker continues on her route in New York City during the coronavirus pandemic, April 6th.

“We are all in this together” has been the refrain over the past four weeks, but it is far from the reality. Some of us still have jobs, while millions do not. Others are working on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic, exposing themselves to serious risk of illness and death. Others have underlying medical conditions that will place them at far greater risk. The U.S. economy abandons many members of marginalized communities at the intersection of these groups, and the results are beginning to be seen in victims of the coronavirus.

In Washington, D.C., where about equal proportions of the population are black and white, just 19 percent of positive diagnoses are white. A staggering 75 percent of all deaths so far in Washington are black residents. As researchers and journalists start to piece together the statistics, the same patterns are evident across the country.

Thanks to the efforts of professor Ibram Kendi at American University and others, at least 29 states now track racial disparities in their coronavirus data releases. But it shouldn’t be up to one academic to urge states to collect these data. This piecemeal approach only underscores how inadequate the federal response has been. Just 22 percent of all coronavirus infections reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention include data on race.

The federal government, to date, shows little interest in mandating more reporting or providing resources to states to keep better data, leaving states to collect whatever level of detail they prefer and leaving us without important nationwide data. These data that are collected reflect a shameful reality of the U.S. economy and healthcare system: Americans from historically marginalized communities are more physically exposed to the new coronavirus and are more at risk of catching and dying from COVID-19, the disease spread by the virus. And they are more exposed to it because they are more likely to be working in many essential industries that must remain open during the crisis.

New York City’s urban transit workers, for example, are 61 percent African American or Hispanic. Inc.’s workforce is 27 percent black (although just 8 percent of managers at Amazon are African American) and 19 percent Hispanic. U.S. Postal Service workers also are disproportionately black. A Pew Research survey found that Latinos are more likely than Americans overall to have lost their job or taken a pay cut.

At the same time, marginalized communities—especially African American communities—are a high-risk group because of policies in the United States that have led to poor health outcomes in their communities. Black Americans are considerably more likely than any other group to have asthma, for example. This is largely because African Americans are more likely to live close to sources of pollution, either because those sources were intentionally built in black neighborhoods or because poverty driven by structural discrimination forced them to seek out inexpensive housing in polluted areas. These policy failures burden vulnerable communities with respiratory diseases.

These insights are important for any policymakers who claim to care about all of their constituents. Policies that aim to help Americans recover from the health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing recession must address the needs of those who have been most severely harmed. Failing to recognize that certain communities are more exposed to the coronavirus and preferencing “colorblind” policy will reinforce the systemic racism that made these communities so vulnerable in the first place. It will also make those communities more vulnerable in the next crisis.

Having appropriate data will not, in and of itself, solve the problems detailed above. But as a threshold concern, policymakers must have disaggregated data to create policies that will address these underlying economic and health disparities—and that data must be available to voters so that they can hold our elected officials accountable. I have written frequently about the need to track economic growth for Americans at every level of income, because growth over the past four decades has overwhelmingly favored the rich. But even in the 1950s and 1960s, when rich and poor Americans enjoyed similar levels of economic growth, African Americans were being left behind. New research that carefully separates the impacts of income and race generally indicates that they have economic outcomes that are worse than white Americans of similar incomes.

For all of these reasons, policymakers should pay special attention to how race, poverty, and participation in essential industry occupations intersect to put many Americans at much higher risk of economic crisis, illness, and death. They need to continue to enact the policies proposed in Equitable Growth’s GDP 2.0 project, and they must invest in a more robust federal response to the current crises that includes funding for standardized data collection across the states so we can identify communities that are hardest hit by the pandemic and respond accordingly.

April 17, 2020


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