Research Report Identifying Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Human Services
A Conceptual Framework and Literature Review
Marla McDaniel, Tyler Woods, Eleanor Pratt, Margaret Simms
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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.

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.
Research Areas Social safety net Race and equity
Tags Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Welfare and safety net programs Racial and ethnic disparities Inequality and mobility Racial barriers to accessing the safety net
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population