Advocates call for more detailed demographic data to improve public policy

By: - June 29, 2022 7:02 am

The New Jersey Assembly is set to vote on a bill Wednesday that would require "data disaggregation" of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

From doctor’s offices to new employers, people filling out forms are given usually just a few choices to define their race and ethnicity — white, Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Asian or sometimes just “other.”

In New Jersey, where Asians are the fastest-growing racial demographic and comprise 11% of the population, the catch-all categories of Asian and “other” can be frustrating.

“Our countries of origin span over 50 countries that speak hundreds of languages, with as many cultures,” said Laura Zhang Choi of advocacy group Make Us Visible New Jersey.

And for policymakers, such a broad category can result in bad policies that exclude or hurt the populations they’re meant to serve.

Several state lawmakers aim to right that oversight. They introduced legislation this year that would require state agencies to widen the demographic data they collect on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to include Asian, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian and Indian diaspora residents.

The bill, which the Assembly’s state and local government committee advanced unanimously last week, is set for a full Assembly vote Wednesday. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a similar bill into law in December.

“The principle behind this is that good policy comes from good data,” said Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D-Somerset), a prime sponsor of the bill.

As communities become more diverse, breaking demographics into smaller, more specific categories — called data disaggregation — helps uncover trends and inequities in those groups, Jaffer said.

Such information, then, can help community leaders better target services and solutions to erase those disparities, said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), another sponsor. Mukherji said it’s unfair to “homogenize folks from an entire continent.”

“And it puts certain subgroups at risk of being underserved. When you’re serving such diverse immigrant and ethnic communities, it’s important to break down the regional categorization so that you don’t make any one group invisible when you’re trying to figure out how to make government work for them,” he said.

People from different demographics can have vastly different experiences in everything from education to health care to financial stability, and those experiences should shape services and policies for those communities, said Assemblyman Sterley Stanley (D-Middlesex), another sponsor.

South Asians have higher risks of cardiovascular diseases than the general population and consequently have different health needs, Stanley said. Taiwanese Americans have far higher rates of educational attainment than people from Bhutan, where ethnic tensions created a refugee crisis, Choi said.

“Ensuring equity through data representation means we can get a better understanding of the health and socioeconomic needs of our Asian populations,” Stanley said.

Laura Zhang Choi of Make Us Visible NJ rallies at the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice’s Immigrant Heritage Day of Action on June 22, 2022, at the Statehouse in Trenton. (Photo courtesy of Laura Choi)

During an Assembly hearing last week, advocates urged lawmakers to support the bill.

“This bill is much needed to help us get a clear picture of New Jersey’s increasingly diverse population,” said Peter Chen, a senior policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective. “Without having a clear picture of who people are within this broad category and standardizing some of that data collection across different agencies, policymakers will be continuing to fly blind.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.