Defining 'Underserved Community'

My organization uses the term ‘underserved community’ a lot. Has anyone else tried to create a definition for this? Specifically, I need to create a list of zip codes in the US of underserved communities, but there are so many different ways to conceptualize this and I’m curious where others have landed in creating a definition.

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Hey @cjmax ! Really excellent question. Thank you for adding it here.

The concept of “underserved” has been a thorny issue in the was data is used in the US. Frankly, it is often used as code for “Black” or “BIPOC” and often it is better to simply say explicitly what you are measuring. However, if you are going to use the term “underserved” - it is really important to have an explicit definition, like you mention.

The White House Executive Order has a pretty clear definition of how it defines underserved. That might be useful if you need to align with the US federal government. However, the feds often need to water their operational definitions down to please multiple stakeholders.

I think there is a pretty strong case for using something like under-recognized rather than underserved. N. Chloé Nwangwu talks about that here:


What about even “historically marginalized” communities to eliminate the use of “under” entirely?

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Great suggestion. I think one of the main priorities is trying to find a word that clearly labels who is making the salient choice in how to treat people - rather than making it imply it is a word that describes a characteristic of the people.

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This is a great question. Similarly, it would be interesting to hear from this group how the term “at-risk” is defined by your organization? Particularly as it relates to education.

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