Identifying Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Human Services: A Conceptual Framework and Literature Review

November 29, 2017
Topics:
Child Care, Early Head Start, Youth Services, Head Start, Self-Sufficiency, Welfare & Employment, Strengthening Families, Healthy Marriage & Responsible Fatherhood
Projects:
Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Human Services, 2015 - 2017 | Learn more about this project
Types:
Reports
Identifying Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Human Services: A Conceptual Framework and Literature Review Cover
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  • File Size 3mb
  • Pages 126
  • Published 2017

Introduction

When there is evidence of racial and ethnic differences at any point in the service delivery spectrum—for example, in access to and take-up of human services, in the nature and quality of services received, or in the outcomes of services—it can be challenging to interpret what those differences mean. In particular, it can be challenging to understand whether and to what extent those differences represent disparities. Disparities mean that one group is systematically faring worse than another for reasons that are not due to the group’s needs, eligibility, or preferences.

This report helps the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) build the base of knowledge necessary to reliably identify and interpret racial and ethnic differences in relation to ACF’s human services programs. Better understanding these differences and being able to distinguish when those differences indicate disparities can help improve ACF’s program delivery. To further ACF’s understanding, this report synthesizes the existing research on racial and ethnic differences and disparities in relation to the service delivery systems of six programs, or program areas, administered by ACF:

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Child Support Enforcement Program
  • Child Care and Development Fund
  • Head Start
  • Family and Youth Services Bureau programs for runaway and homeless youth and adolescent pregnancy prevention

To facilitate this synthesis, the report provides a clear definition of disparities. It also develops a conceptual framework for identifying racial and ethnic differences throughout the service delivery system and for distinguishing racial and ethnic differences from disparities.

Research Questions

  1. 1 To what extent has existing research addressed issues around racial and ethnic disparities in the six selected ACF programs?
  2. 2 Does the research find evidence of racial and ethnic disparities in these human services programs?
  3. 3 How are racial and ethnic “disparities” distinguished from racial and ethnic “differences” in the research literature on these programs?

Purpose

The goal of this report is to summarize existing research on racial and ethnic disparities in access, services and treatment, and outcomes within the six selected ACF human services programs and to offer a conceptual framework for distinguishing racial and ethnic “disparities” from “differences.”

Key Findings and Highlights

Some highlights from the review include the following:

  • The research team identified a large body of work on racial and ethnic differences in access, services and treatment, and outcomes for six selected ACF human services programs.
  • Across programs, the same racial and ethnic groups generally tend to experience poorer outcomes.
  • Unlike research on health disparities and racial disproportionality in the child welfare system, studies on the six ACF human services programs reviewed have not been organized around a unifying framework or systematic approach to defining and measuring disparities, their consequences, or policy and practice solutions.
  • Although most studies of ACF human services programs have not calculated disparities in similar or systematic ways, the research does suggest that there are factors both internal to the service delivery system, such as worker bias and discretion or location of services, and external, such as employer discrimination or nonstandard work hours, that can lead to racial and ethnic disparities in access, treatment, and outcomes in relation to ACF programs.
  • Research on ways in which program operations and treatment as well as factors external to the programs can lead to racial and ethnic disparities is only suggestive, however; hypotheses about specific causal mechanisms have not been methodically tested.

Methods

We reviewed available studies on program eligibility and participation, access and identification, services and treatment, and outcomes for each of the six ACF programs in the report. We also reviewed empirical studies and conceptual theories on racial and ethnic differences, disparities, and disproportionality in the health care and child welfare systems. In total, we reviewed approximately 350 articles and reports written from 1986 to 2016 to see what the literature concludes on the following topics:

  • How are racial and ethnic disparities defined? How are they identified?
  • Do the selected human services programs show evidence of racial and ethnic disparities in access, services and treatment, or outcomes?
  • Does a program’s operation or implementation contribute to or alleviate disparities?
  • What does the literature tell us about racial and ethnic disparities in human services? What does the literature not tell us?
  • What additional information, data, or evidence would help us better understand racial and ethnic disparities in human services?

Recommendations

To improve its understanding of racial and ethnic disparities in human services, the field should systematically

  • estimate underlying population need,
  • assess program access and participation by race and ethnicity,
  • assess services and treatment by race and ethnicity, and
  • assess outcomes by race and ethnicity.

Moving toward a better understanding of racial and ethnic differences and disparities in ACF human services programs would require

  • greater emphasis on collecting data that can support analyses of racial and ethnic differences, and
  • greater exploration of analytic techniques that can reliably estimate racial and ethnic differences when existing data are insufficient.

Citation

McDaniel, Marla, Tyler Woods, Eleanor Pratt, and Margaret C. Simms. 2017. Identifying Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Human Services: A Conceptual Framework and Literature Review. OPRE Report #2017-69. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Last Reviewed: November 20, 2017