During the Obama administration, at least four federal agencies, including the Justice Department, asked the Census Bureau to add questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to the American Community Survey, NPR has learned.
Besides the Justice Department, those agencies include the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Still, in March, the bureau concluded there was “no federal data need” to ask about sexual orientation and gender identity on the largest survey in the U.S., which is conducted with about 3.5 million households each year and is used to help distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds.
Many LGBT rights groups say accurate national data about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are critical in making sure their needs are met.
The Justice Department laid out the “legal authority supporting the necessity” for collecting that information in a spreadsheet of statutes attached to its letter to the Census Bureau dated Nov. 4, 2016.
NPR recently obtained copies of those documents through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Justice Department. They were first published online in May by the office of Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.
The U.S. Census Bureau might have started asking Americans about sexual orientation and gender identity if the Department of Justice had not backed off its request for information about LGBT populations, former Census Bureau Director John Thompson told NPR’s Code Switch.
Justice Department officials under the Trump administration contacted the Census Bureau about the “appropriateness” of certain sexual orientation and gender identity topics appearing on the upcoming American Community Survey, according to a letter sent in March by the Commerce Department that was published on Carper’s website. The Commerce Department oversees the Census Bureau.
Less than a week after that letter was sent, the Justice Department wrote to the Commerce Department saying that it was “unable to reaffirm” its request for information about LGBT populations “because such a request requires thorough analysis and careful consideration.”
After receiving that update from the Justice Department, the Census Bureau stopped evaluating whether to include sexual orientation and gender identity questions, according to Thompson, who resigned as Census Bureau director on June 30.
Neither the Census Bureau nor the Justice Department has responded to NPR’s requests for comment.
As part of preparations for the upcoming decennial survey, agencies have the opportunity to submit requests for new topics of questions that will appear in the latest questionnaires for the American Community Survey. Those requests are then reviewed by a committee of officials from both the Census Bureau and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, which sets the standards for how federal agencies collect data and ultimately decides whether new survey questions are added after public comment, according to a Census Bureau policy signed in 2006.
Thompson said the Census Bureau reviewed a letter from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a copy of which NPR obtained through a FOIA request. “Valid, reliable, and nationally representative data on sexual orientation and gender identity are essential to HUD fulfilling its mission,” wrote former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, who argued that LGBT data could help enforcement of the agency’s “Equal Access to Housing” rule and the Fair Housing Act.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services submitted a request in order to improve care for LGBT beneficiaries of Medicare and Medicaid, says Cara James, director of the agency’s Office of Minority Health.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Acting General Counsel Kevin Minoli says the EPA sent a request to help its equal employment opportunity efforts for people who identify as LGBT. Minoli adds that based on conversations with the Census Bureau, the agency learned that its request was not sufficient to support the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity questions because it requested data collected at the city or town level only.
It is unclear exactly what criteria the Census Bureau used to decide whether the requests meet a federal data need. “There’s got to be strong programmatic need,” Thompson told Code Switch, “and there’s got to be a need for small-area data.” The Census Bureau has defined “small areas” as either Census tracts or block groups, statistical groups of 8,000 people or fewer, according to a charter for a review committee for the American Community Survey.
However, the criteria listed in the charter for reviewing requests also included: “Federal law or regulation states that the small area or small population estimates must be provided.” The LGBT population was cited as an example of a “small population” in a 2014 report by a Census Bureau working group.
In response to NPR’s request to elaborate on why the agency determined that LGBT data was not needed, Thompson wrote by email, “I really don’t have [any more] to add to what I have already made publicly available through my interview with NPR or while at the Census Bureau.”
Thompson did write a blog post in March after a controversial revision was made to the Census Bureau’s report of planned topics of questions for the 2020 census and the American Community Survey. The first version of the report published online listed “sexual orientation and gender identity” as “proposed,” which Thompson wrote was “due to an error.”
While his blog post cited requests from more than 75 members of Congress, Thompson did not mention the requests from multiple federal agencies that also wanted the collection of LGBT data. “It didn’t seem necessary to convey the intended message,” Thompson explained in an email.
Thompson’s comments came almost a month after the June 19 deadline set by Carper and Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California for the former Census Bureau director to provide an explanation about the decision to not add sexual orientation and gender identity as a proposed topic for the American Community Survey.
“I’m concerned by the lack of information about the Department of Justice’s decision-making role and influence on topics considered in the American Community Survey and the 2020 Census,” Carper said in a written statement, referring to the Census Bureau missing the deadline for a response. “It’s troubling that the bureau has yet to provide a response to my letter with Sen. Harris, yet another example of this administration’s blatant disregard for Congressional authority to conduct oversight.”
Both Harris, whose office has not responded to NPR’s inquiry, and Carper are members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has oversight of the Census Bureau.
Some LGBT advocates have raised concerns that the Trump administration is trying to stop federal agencies from collecting data on the LGBT community.
Thompson says that’s not true.
“I can honestly say that the White House never contacted the Census Bureau about that at all,” Thompson said, referring to the Trump administration. “It was all between the Census Bureau and the different agencies.”