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Opinion The deterioration of data is robbing marginalized communities of their voice

The Institute for Policy Studies released a study last month on median wealth in American households, and the findings were unsettling, if unsurprising. While the inflation-adjusted median wealth of white families in the United States had grown from US$110,160 to US$146,984 over the past three decades, it had hardly increased at all for Hispanic families (US$4,289 to US$6,591), and dropped by roughly half for Black families (US$7,323 to US$3,557). By 2082, the study concluded that, should current trends hold, the Black family will have a median net worth of zero.

I posted excerpts from the study online, and an acquaintance of mine asked how Black families in Canada compared with their U.S. counterparts. I had no idea, I said. In Canada, we don’t collect, study and distribute such information.

This has long been a point of frustration. When I was a financial planner in a previous life, I often found myself having to debunk misconceptions about the ever-shrinking middle class. One of the more pernicious narratives was the long-term effects of the 2008 financial crisis, which, more than a decade later, many still erroneously blame on irresponsible, low-income “deadbeat borrowers.”

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Read more: How Canada’s racial data gaps can be hazardous to your health

Read more: ‘Visible minority’: Is it time for Canada to scrap the term?

In depth: In the dark: The cost of Canada’s data deficit

A 2010 study conducted by the American Sociological Review, I would note, found that banks not only targeted low-income areas for risky and complicated subprime loans, but denied traditional loans to qualified Black and Hispanic applicants, effectively creating a segregated class of borrowers who were disproportionately impacted when the interest on those loans skyrocketed.

A slew of follow-up studies in the United States eventually spurred federal investigations, which found that lenders did engage in discriminatory and predatory practices. One of the worst offenders, Wells Fargo, was hit with a US$175-million judgment in 2012 for saddling non-white borrowers with higher interest and worse deals on their mortgages than their white peers of similar credit standing.

Without publicly available municipal census metropolitan data, federally legislated land data and foreclosure information from private oversight agencies, not only could banks have gotten away with enriching themselves through illegal lending practices, there would have been no counternarrative to the myth that broke borrowers of colour collapsed the global economy.

And equivalent data, available and freely usable for such comprehensive studies, does not exist in Canada.

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Not so long ago, the collection of race-specific data was seen as unseemly at best, and targeting at worst. That data was often used as a cudgel by police forces to stereotype marginalized communities, and often there was no counternarrative offered. But now, with data analysis having become essential to the global economy and our political systems, everything boils down to the numbers. Geopolitics are being tilted and societies are being reshaped by information asymmetries. Avoiding discussions about race has effectively left policy-makers wandering blindfolded through a forest, at the expense of communities of colour.

Our federal and provincial governments, for instance, have responded to increasing conversation about racialized state-sanctioned violence and discrimination by declining to quantify the problem. Even as policing agencies across the country tout the value of street checks as a tool for preventing and solving crime, data on their efficacy have typically not been studied nor reviewed by independently operated and funded oversight agencies. In Edmonton’s case, the police service funded a study in which the dataset was described as “contaminated” by officers' subjective evaluations; in Vancouver, the data was only released to the public after a Freedom of Information request. Meanwhile, in Ontario, a report by a provincial judge declared it bluntly: “There is little to no evidence that a random, unfocused collection of identifying information has benefits that outweigh the social cost of the practice."

While Canadians thank the heavens we don’t experience the statistically proven dysfunctions in the United States' health, financial and public-safety systems, that gratitude is rooted in ignorance. We know that south of the border, Black mothers are three times as likely to die during childbirth as their white peers, but Canadians have no way to understand the scale of the Indigenous child-welfare crisis beyond the blunt sum of Indigenous children being funnelled into the children’s aid system. We have no aggregated national data on maternal (or even infant) mortality rates among specific ethnic groups, preventing Ottawa from creating targeted health policy. We have no comprehensive data on sexual-health practices among teens and young adults, which effectively granted the Ontario government carte blanche to roll back the sex-education curriculum by 20 years.

Time and again, marginalized communities have had to rely on an irregular flow of data to validate our stories and lived experiences – forced to marshal math in support of our stories that broader Canadian society too often dismisses as hysterics. Canada’s data deficiencies are not merely problems of public policy: They reflect an unacceptable level of neglect that’s become an obstacle to our ability to advocate for ourselves.

The data deficit and race: How you can help

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