Every Community Is Worth Collecting Data On

By Tina Kauh

My parents, like so many other immigrants, moved to America with dreams of a better life, full of opportunity for themselves and their children. My parents were Korean immigrants who left nearly everything when they came to the United States. For over three decades, they owned a corner store in Philadelphia where they worked long, physically demanding days while navigating numerous cultural and language barriers. False narratives about Asian Americans perpetuate beliefs that people like my parents were thriving because they were such “hard workers.” But I saw first-hand how the challenges they faced negatively impacted their social, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing. 

As a graduate student, I wanted to study issues important to Asian Americans, but I couldn’t find data to support my work—because it did not exist. As a researcher, I developed proposals to collect data from Asian Americans, but the projects were not funded. Working in philanthropy, I’m interested in seeing research based on the experiences of Asian Americans. However, funding such projects has been challenging because there is a status quo belief about how much data collection should cost. Researchers who were willing to pursue this work reported legitimate and frustrating barriers: too often, it was perceived as time consuming or otherwise difficult to collect the needed data. And trying to meaningfully study a smaller subpopulation within the broader Asian American population was nearly impossible.

Today’s deep racial and ethnic inequities are a direct result of structural racism: the policies, practices, and norms that create and maintain White supremacy, including those that guide how researchers collect, analyze, and report on data.

Making So-Called Subpopulations More Visible

One promising policy shift: The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is exploring updates to the federal minimum standards for data collection (last revised in a quarter century ago). These updates might include:

  • Requiring detailed race and ethnicity categories by default, beyond existing broad racial/ethnic groups.
  • Adding a new ethnic category for Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) individuals, disaggregating them from the White category.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation submitted comments and I was encouraged to see over 20,000 comments during the comment period ending in April 2023. I applaud the OMB; these potential changes in federal standards are one critical lever that can accelerate how institutions live into commitments to dismantle structural racism.


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