Like many other parts of the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic brought the Northern Mariana Islands’ economy skidding to a halt. Flights carrying tourists stopped, hotels closed and thousands were out of work. But when the federal government asked Vicky Benavente, the head of the territory’s Labor Department, to estimate how many workers were unemployed, she wasn’t sure.

That’s partially because unlike U.S. states, the federal government doesn’t collect annual unemployment data from the Northern Marianas and other territories. Instead, the local government serving a population of about 47,000 conducts periodic surveys to figure out how many people are out of jobs. The last one was completed in 2017.

The only way Benavente could estimate local job loss was by noting that the number of local employers submitting quarterly surveys fell from 1,000 to 600 in 2020 — a 40% drop in active businesses.

“This is one lesson we learned,” Benavente said last week. “Data is so critical for justifying our asks to the federal government.”

Congressman Gregorio Kilili Sablan is among several delegates from U.S. territories who want more federal data collection for their communities. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2019

Data collection could become easier under a bill introduced in Congress this summer by Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, and the non-voting delegates representing the U.S. island territories.

The measure known as the Territories Statistics Collection Equity Act, would ask the Interagency Council on Statistical Policy to spend a year coming up with a plan to ensure federal data collection for U.S. territories is on par with states and fully implement its plan within four years.

“We lag far behind the states in terms of priority, availability, timeliness and type of data collected,” said Rep. Gregorio Kilili Sablan from the Northern Mariana Islands, one of the measure’s co-sponsors.

Sablan said the biggest challenges to getting more federal data collection in the commonwealth are lack of funding and lack of interest in U.S. territories. The proposed bill would include estimating how much additional data collection would cost.

Neil Weare, executive director of Equally American, a nonprofit that advocates for civil rights for residents of U.S. territories, said it may be a hard and expensive undertaking, but it’s one that residents of remote U.S. states benefit from already.

“Is it harder to collect data in the Aleutian islands in Alaska than it is in Rota?” he asked, referring to an island in the Northern Marianas. “I don’t think so.”

Less Data, Less Frequently

Robert Underwood, a former U.S. congressman from Guam who now serves on President Joe Biden’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, thinks the bill is a good first step but the process could be accomplished faster with a directive from the Office of Management and Budget or a presidential executive order.

“I think it is a great idea, but the timeline is a little long,” Underwood said. He noted territories like Guam that conduct their own local surveys may ask for more detail than federal surveys but said inclusion in the federal data collection would lighten the burden on local agencies.

Weare said Puerto Rico’s American Community Survey stems from an executive order under former President George H.W. Bush.

Esther Kiaaina previously worked with Underwood in Congress to push for the Office of Management and Budget’s directive to disaggregate data about Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. The former Interior Department official and current Honolulu City Council member said ensuring dedicated funding to federal agencies to collect the data would be key.

Otherwise, federal agencies might seek to pull funding from the Insular Affairs division to fulfill requirements related to territories, which would result in less money for the island communities themselves, she said.

But while funding may still be an open question, there’s no question the data gaps that the bill would address are longstanding. For one thing, all the island territories except Puerto Rico are excluded from the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“They miss out on incredibly important, timely information about demographics, the economy, housing, all of these things are incredibly important to policy decision-making,” said Jae June Lee, policy and data analyst at the Georgetown Center on Poverty’s Inequality, Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative.

That also means that territories aren’t included when national population estimates are routinely calculated, implying that they don’t reflect who we are as a country, Lee said.

All U.S territories are included in the decennial Census. On Thursday, the Census released its 2020 demographic profiles for American Samoa, the Northern Marianas, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

But even then the territories aren’t on the same footing as states, said Lee, who notes that demographic profiles for these smaller island communities are issued later in the year compared with the national census data. He said data from those four U.S. territories also aren’t subject to the same data integrity analyses as data from states, making it tough to tell whether the communities are undercounted or overcounted.

To Lee, this is a racial justice issue. The vast majority of people living in U.S. territories are people of color, including in Pacific territories. According to the census data issued Thursday, 46% of people living on Guam are Pacific Islanders, most Indigenous Chamorros, and 35% identify as Asian.

In the Northern Marianas, more than 43% of the population are Pacific Islanders — including a quarter Chamorros — and 46% are Asian. In American Samoa, over 88% are Pacific Islanders. Those statistics don’t include people who identify as mixed race.

The communities also have high rates of low-income families. The family poverty rate on Guam was 16.8% in 2019, rising to nearly 24% for families with children under the age of 18. In the Northern Mariana Islands that same year, the poverty rate was 33% for families, exceeding 42% for families with children.

In American Samoa, fully half of families were under the poverty line in 2019, including 57% of families with children under the age of 18. More data could help policymakers justify requests for more resources for their communities.

Weare thinks the lack of parity in data collection reflects broader systemic discrimination and disregard for the territories.

“If you want to count when it comes to federal policy, you need to count when it comes to federal data collection,” Weare said.

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