It’s Time for a Breakdown: The Importance of Disaggregated Data

(February 10, 2023) Allies for Children’s goal is to ensure that all children, especially our county’s most vulnerable, have the support and opportunities to grow to their full potential. To do this, we have to understand the needs of all of those children, and a lot of that understanding is achieved by looking at data. Though it may seem counterintuitive when looking at such a large group of subjects, it is frequently less-than helpful to look at generalized information and numbers on their own. Often, we can learn more about how to address a big problem by looking at individual populations through disaggregated data.

Data being disaggregated simply means that it’s broken down into its distinct parts. There are many ways that data can be disaggregated, including by race. At Allies for Children, much of our focus is on how children of color may experience inequity due to racialized public policies and institutional practices, so disaggregation by race is often very useful to us.

As an example of how disaggregated data might be useful, we can look at WIC participation rates in Allegheny County. According to this data from the Pennsylvania Bureau of WIC, Allegheny County saw a decrease of 11% from December 2020 to December 2022.

While the decline in WIC participation is a problem that Allies for Children is working to combat in general, taking a look at the disaggregated participation data over the same time period can give us a more specific look into what exactly is going on.

By looking at the data broken down into categories by race we can see that while numbers of Black and white WIC participants did decline in accordance with the total change, participation actually increased among the American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander communities. The number of American Indian and Alaska Native participants more than doubled, in fact. Further investigation into why the participation among these populations has increased – and so drastically in some cases – would be needed. These changes might indicate the need for a different kind of support in these communities.

With this broken-down data, we can more accurately target our efforts as we work to reverse the trend of declining WIC participation. We can see that participation among white users has actually seen more of a decline (-14.3%) than the average from 2020 to 2022 (-11%). In contrast, the decline among Black users is slightly lower than the average at -8.8%. This shows that there is a disparity in participation between these two communities and tells us that we should look into why that disparity exists. If the reason can be figured out, it can be addressed directly, but we wouldn’t have known to look for it if we didn’t have the disaggregated data.

It can be a struggle to get disaggregated data from the agencies and organizations who collect and release it. The numbers for particular groups or populations might be withheld specifically to hide the extent of the disparities that exist. Allies for Children and its partners recently succeeded in getting PA WIC to release the disaggregated data discussed above, when previously it was unavailable to the public. It is important that the groups who are collecting data practice data transparency, releasing all of the data, regardless of what it may reveal, and being clear about the purpose of the data.

Data can also be broken down in other ways: gender identity, age, ethnicity, and income are just a few. All of these categories can be cross referenced with each other to show, for example, the gender breakdown among race categories in a data set. It would also be useful if the race categories were broken up further. The current general categories – American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White – are limiting and may make some respondents feel uncomfortable or unrepresented. This could lead to responses of “other,” or no response altogether, which are less accurate and less helpful. In particular, people who are Hispanic may consider that to be their race, while “Hispanic” is often designated separately from race as an ethnicity on surveys. Middle Eastern and North African populations are considered to be part of the “white” category, but these communities often have distinct needs that may be hidden by this system of categories. Adding more possible options for survey respondents has been shown to increase the accuracy of the data that is collected.

Every research need will require different types of disaggregation, so it is important to ensure that data collection is thorough so that the reporting of data can be disaggregated in the most appropriate, useful way. It is important to note, however, that this process may involve the collection or more sensitive data, so the methods of data collection require sensitivity, and staff must be trained appropriately. Having disaggregated data is vital if we want to make sure that the particular needs of one community are lost within the bigger picture.

Laura Condon, Allies for Children Project Coordinator