Census Representation and the Aging LGBTQ Population
A media firestorm erupted earlier this year when a report from the Census Bureau to Congress listing proposed topics for the 2020 Census was quietly updated to remove sexual orientation and gender identity.
Although the bureau claimed the original inclusion was a clerical error, many LGBTQ rights advocates saw the removal as part of a larger systemic effort by the Trump administration to silence the LGBTQ population by eliminating sexual orientation questions from federal surveys. Since the Trump administration has taken office, as of January 2017, questions about sexual orientation, which allow the needs of the LGBTQ community to be assessed as a particular demographic, have also disappeared from the Annual Program Performance Report for Centers for Independent Living and the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants.
The Importance of Reliable Data for LGBTQ Persons
Reliable data about the LGBTQ population is vital both for government representation and for organizations working on LGBT-specific issues to receive proper federal funding. According to the Forward Thinking Campaign from the MSW@USC, the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s online master of social work program, starting at a young age, the LGBTQ community is at increased risk of homelessness, contracting HIV and AIDS, depression, suicide and substance abuse, and violence, physical assault, and bullying.
Exclusion of sexual orientation questions from the census and the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants also poses specific challenges for organizations working with the aging LGBTQ population.
The National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants is an annual survey administered by the Department of Health and Human Services to determine how federal funds are allocated to groups that work with aging Americans. For years, advocates for the older LGBTQ community fought for the inclusion of questions about sexual orientation. Questions were finally added to the 2014 survey, which showed there are about 3 million LGBTQ people older than 55 in the United States.
This sizable group faces issues distinct from older heterosexual Americans. Older LGBTQ Americans are much more likely to live alone and 4 times less likely to have children, meaning they depend more heavily on community programs for social interaction and care. According to a 2015 report by Service & Advocacy for LGBT Elders (SAGE), more than half of LGBTQ people between the ages of 45 and 75 are extremely concerned about their financial futures. The report also found that two-thirds of older trans people worry about having limited access to or denial of medical treatment, and 24% of LGBTQ older people of color face housing discrimination.
Barriers to Federal Funding for LGBTQ Seniors and Their Issues
The recent removal of questions about sexual orientation from the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants hinders the gathering of such integral data and prevents organizations focused on addressing the issues faced by older LGBTQ Americans from receiving their fair share of federal funding.
“The Trump Administration is literally attempting to erase the LGBTQ community from the fabric of American history,” Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD President and CEO, told NBC after news broke of the adjustment to the survey. “Our LGBTQ seniors, many of whom survived the HIV and AIDS epidemic, do not deserve to have the government once again brush them off from obtaining transportation services, caregiver support, and even delivered meals that fit their needs.”
Failure to count LGBTQ people of all ages as a distinct demographic in the census is just one contemporary example of the way the survey has always failed to represent the needs of minority populations. The census has struggled with undercounting Black and Hispanic Americans as well as Native Americans for years. The 2010 census, the most accurate one to date, missed 1.5 million minorities. Afro-Latinos and those of Middle Eastern or North African descent have also spoken out about the need for census adjustments to account for their experiences.
Former Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro illustrated the way a lack of accurate data about minority communities affects daily lives when he wrote a letter on behalf of the department to the Census Bureau requesting information collection on sexual orientation and gender identity.
According to NPR, Castro deemed the data essential to properly implementing the department’s “Equal Access to Housing” rule, which outlaws discrimination against LGBTQ tenants by landlords who are granted federal housing funds and prevents mortgage lenders from withholding federally insured mortgages to qualified LGBTQ applicants.
The letter also claimed the information could aid in administration of the Fair Housing Act, which, according to the HUD website “protects people from discrimination when they are renting, buying, or securing financing from any housing.” The program targets “discrimination because of race, color, national original, religion, sex, disability and the presence of children”—meaning accurate information about all the 1.5 million minorities who went uncounted in the most recent census would also likely be crucial to its proper enforcement.
Gathering accurate census data about minority communities is absolutely vital in a representational democracy where that information is used to implement programs like the Fair Housing Act, calculate government representation, and allocate federal funding.
A census that collects accurate data about LGBTQ people and other minority communities is the only way the United States government can effectively serve the needs of its entire population.
Author Bio: Colleen O’Day is a Digital PR Manager and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health, and speech pathology programs. Find her on Twitter @ColleenMODay.