Commentary

Ensuring all citizens are counted

By Adam Schiff Jimmy Panetta

October 05, 2017

By ADAM SCHIFF and JIMMY PANETTA | Good public policy depends on thorough and accurate data. For over 200 years, the Census Bureau has provided Congress and other federal agencies with a demographic portrait of the United States, which enables lawmakers to determine how resources should be allocated to meet the needs of the diverse populations within our country. However, this demographic portrait is incomplete in significant ways, because neither the decennial census nor the annual American Census Survey (ACS) ask respondents if they are willing to report sexual orientation and gender identity. Simply put, this means quite literally that LGBT people cannot be counted.

Despite tremendous progress in the fight to secure equal human rights for LGBT people, the fact remains that we know little about the social and economic circumstances of the country’s LGBT population at large.

Overwhelming evidence suggests LGBT Americans continue to experience discrimination in everyday life, including in employment, housing, and the justice system. Independent studies have revealed that the LGBT community suffers from decreased social and familial support and endures higher instances of poverty. Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, even though LGBT youth make up just five to ten percent of the overall youth population. LGBT individuals are also incarcerated at three times the rate of the general population. These disparities are particularly acute for transgender Americans and LGBT people of color.

While independent studies are helpful, they cannot replace the data collected by the Census. Expanded data collection on gender identity and sexual orientation is needed to help policymakers understand the full extent of the disparities experienced by the community – from healthcare, to low-income housing assistance and SNAP benefits – and identify the needs of these communities so they can be better served.

That’s why, over the past several years, the Department of Justice, Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency have all requested the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity questions. We echoed these calls this past April when we spoke out with 84 of our Congressional colleagues, in a bipartisan effort to demand LGBT-inclusive data collection by the federal government and to urge the Census Bureau to explain why they have been reluctant to address the issue.

The reason behind the Bureau’s stubborn refusal to include two simple demographic questions in their surveys seems clear – it is part of a broad effort to repudiate the work of the prior Administration and in particular when it affects the LGBT community.

Following his resignation, Ex-Census Bureau Director Thompson revealed that sexual orientation and gender identity questions would have been included in the 2020 Census and the ACS if the Department of Justice had not reneged on its request for information about LGBT populations. In fact, a draft version of the Census Bureau’s report actually included a full section on sexual orientation and gender identity that has since been abandoned.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this – this is consistent with other efforts by this Administration to hide or erase LGBT people from federal surveys, program evaluation projects, and technical assistance resources. And without Congressional intervention or an immediate change in course by the Census Bureau, there won’t be another opportunity to gather data on this scale for a decade or more.

That’s why we have introduced an amendment to the FY18 House Appropriations package to require the Census Bureau to conduct a study on the feasibility of expanding data collection on sexual and gender identity. We know these questions are needed – and the Census Bureau agreed before the transition to the new Administration. It’s our job in Congress to ensure the Bureau has the necessary resources to ask these questions in the most scientifically-sound manner.

The Census Bureau’s data collection efforts have always played a significant role in our ability to understand the communities that we represent and how best to serve them. LGBT Americans – like every American – deserve to be counted and recognized in all federally-supported surveys. We hope our amendment will spur continued discussion, leading to a more inclusive Census that acknowledges the full diversity of our country’s population.

—  Democrat Rep. Adam B. Schiff represents the greater Los Angeles area, including West Hollywood; Democrat Rep. Jimmy Panetta represents California’s Central Coast.