May 29, 2014

Census says it will count same-sex marriages, but with caveats

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

The U.S. Census Bureau said that it will count same-sex spouses as married couples for the first time, rather than grouping them with cohabiting partners. The agency said it would make the change with the September release of data from its largest household survey.

The new approach reflects the bureau’s evolving policy on reporting household relationships, as it tries to keep pace with social change. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and only one state (North Dakota) has a ban that has not been challenged in court.

Previously, the Census Bureau categorized same-sex spouses as unmarried partners, even if they said they were married, and the bureau included the figures in published statistics about cohabiting couples.

Supporters of gay marriage describe the bureau’s changes as long overdue and say that recognition by the Census Bureau reflects Americans’ growing acceptance of same-sex relationships and legal recognition by courts in a growing number of states. In the long term, the impact will be to broaden and deepen the statistics available about the families, economic circumstances and other characteristics of same-sex married couples.

However, demographic data researchers are not sure how much of a real impact there will be from the data right away.

First, the same-sex married population is still very small. There were 56 million households headed by opposite-sex married couples reported in the 2012 American Community Survey. By contrast, only about 182,000 households headed by same-sex married couples were counted in a special tabulation by the bureau released separately from its published tables. (About 81,000 were male couples and 101,000 were female couples.)

Because of the large difference in the number of same-sex and opposite-sex spouses, the change in how they are counted should not affect overall marriage trends or characteristics, according to Census Bureau officials.

Second, the census’s data about married same-sex couples has flaws. The agency has acknowledged “a very serious problem” of overcounts of same-sex spouses, due to people in some heterosexual couples mistakenly checking the wrong sex box on the census questionnaire.

The Census Bureau currently produces its data on same-sex couples by using answers to questions about respondents’ sex and about how they are related to the householder, or person who fills out the census form. Agency officials are experimenting with alternative ways to ask relationship questions. They also are seeking information about dealing with this problem from other countries, such as Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, that collect data about same-sex couples.

The census first included an option for “unmarried partner” for all couples in the 1990 census and the bureau reported counts from that census for both same-sex and opposite-sex cohabiters. However, the bureau had a policy not to count same-sex couples who said they were married as married couples until now. They changed respondents’ answers in different ways from decade to decade.

For example, if a same-sex couple reported being married in 1990, the bureau changed the sex of one of the spouses because gay marriage was not legal. Then, starting with the 2000 census, the agency changed how it categorized same-sex marriages again. In the 2000 census, if a same-sex couple reported they were married, the bureau changed their status to unmarried. Under its new policy, the bureau will count same-sex couples who say they are spouses as married couples.

The Census Bureau’s new policy “is an important step that shows how Census and U.S. society have changed in attitudes about the meanings of marriage and family,” Gary Gates, who studies the demographics of same-sex couples at the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, said in an email.  “Analytically, the impact of the change is relatively minimal because there are still data quality issues to be addressed and because the total number of married same-sex couples is not large enough to substantively alter broader statistics about married couples and families in the U.S.”

In recent years, the bureau has made data about same-sex spouses available on a limited basis. The special tabulation cannot be accessed through the agency’s official data portal, American FactFinder, and has only a restricted set of variables—for example, employment status is given but not occupation or industry. The agency plans to continue releasing these annual basic tables, according to Rose Kreider, chief of the bureau’s Fertility and Family Statistics Branch.

Detailed statistics about same-sex married couples (as well as opposite-sex married couples) will be accessible to expert users, via census microdata from both the 2013 American Community Survey and 2014 Current Population Survey this year. These are individual-level records scrubbed of identifying information that typically are released several months after the initial data. Microdata are available through the bureau website or the Minnesota Population Center’s Integrated Public-Use Microdata Series, and mainly are accessed using statistical software.

Topics: Gay Marriage and Homosexuality, U.S. Census

  1. Photo of D’Vera Cohn

    is a Senior Writer at the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project.

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6 Comments

  1. C2 months ago

    This is not surprising.

    In the 2012 1-year ACS release the Census Bureau quietly included a flag for the relationship to head variable (RELATE in IPUMS) indicating if a same-sex married partner was changed to an unmarried partner (usa.ipums.org/usa-action/variabl…). This is a very useful flag and an important start to the census bureau providing meaningful data on same sex marriage.

    Reply
    1. D’Vera Cohn2 months ago

      For those who use microdata/IPUMS, the bureau plans to flag two groups of same-sex married couples in the upcoming American Community Survey data release, enabling users to find them. One group will be from same-sex spouse households that checked the relevant relationship and sex boxes; the other group will be couples that check the spouse box but where either householder or spouse did not report their sex and it will be assigned based on first name. As a previous post here reported (pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/0…), the bureau says it has had good success matching gender with first name.

      Reply
  2. C2 months ago

    This is not surprising.

    In the 2012 1-year ACS release the Census Bureau quietly released a flag for the relationship to head variable (RELATE in IPUMS) indicating if a same-sex married partner was changed to an unmarried partner (usa.ipums.org/usa-action/variabl…). This was done quietly, but is a very useful flag and an important start to the census bureau providing meaningful data on same sex marriage.

    Reply
  3. Byard Pidgeon2 months ago

    This shouldn’t be an issue, as any ban on same sex civil marriage has always been an intrusion of religious belief, and in effect government support, favoring religion over civil society.

    Let’s hope the offices of the Census are adequately prepared for flood, famine, pestilence and plague.

    Reply
  4. Leslie2 months ago

    Twenty-four years, from the time they changed a person’s reported sex and “made” all couples opposite sexes (heterosexual) (1990); and fourteen years, from the time they “un-married” same-sex couples (2000). Four years ago (2010) they assigned the sex of some in households based on assuming a couple with names “Chris and Pat” could only mean “Christine” and “Patrick” or “Christopher” and “Patricia.”

    Another couple of decades and the Census bureau may report there are actually same-sex (gay) couples living in America.

    “They are seeking information about dealing with this problem from other countries, such as Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, that collect data about same-sex couples.”

    Progress. Some of us are only considered a “problem” for the government’s Census now.

    Reply
  5. slk2 months ago

    soon to make a divorce lawyer happy!!!

    Reply