May 15, 2017

Four research highlights for 2017 from the largest U.S. demography conference

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
New research presented at the PAA conference in Chicago suggests that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program gives unauthorized-immigrant college students an incentive to drop out. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

At this year’s annual meeting of the Population Association of America, the nation’s largest demography conference, researchers explored some long-studied topics from new perspectives. For example, what is the impact on educational achievement when college-age unauthorized immigrants are offered protection from deportation? With same-sex marriage on the rise, how can the U.S. Census Bureau accurately count this relatively small group? And how is fertility – that is, the number of births – affected when a city has a winning Super Bowl team?

What follows is a summary of research related to these and other questions, as presented at the PAA conference in Chicago last month. Much of the work presented is preliminary, so results may change. 

College-age unauthorized immigrants

More than 750,000 young unauthorized immigrants have received two-year renewable work permits and protection from deportation through the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program since it was created in 2012. The program covers unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16 and meet certain conditions, such as being enrolled in high school or having a high school degree or GED equivalent or having been honorably discharged from the military and not having a serious criminal conviction. The program’s future is uncertain under the Trump administration.

Good data on unauthorized immigrants are hard to find because immigration status is not included on most surveys or records. Some research has found that DACA made unauthorized immigrants more likely to join the labor force and lowered their likelihood of living in poverty. And according to a new study by Queens College researchers, it also raised the dropout rate of unauthorized-immigrant college students at one large public university system, presumably so they could work.

Analyzing student records for 2007-2014, Amy Hsin, Holly Reed and Francesc Ortega concluded that the dropout rate of unauthorized immigrant students at four-year colleges rose by a large amount — at least 6 percentage points – due to DACA. In an email to Pew Research Center, Hsin said the dropout rate at four-year colleges was 24% in 2012 but rose to 31% in 2013, when most unauthorized immigrants received their DACA status, and to 33% in 2014. The dropout rate for other students was 33% in 2012, 32% in 2013 and 31% in 2014, she said.

The researchers also concluded that DACA led some unauthorized-immigrant students at community colleges to switch from full-time to part-time enrollment. They found that DACA reduced full-time enrollment of unauthorized immigrant students by at least 5 percentage points (and possibly up to 10).

One reason DACA recipients might favor work over schooling is that many come from poor families. They are not eligible for government financial aid, though unauthorized immigrant students who declare their status receive reduced tuition (at the rate of in-state documented students) at the public university system studied in the paper, which is why the researchers are confident they have reliable data about these students. “DACA eligible youth may be the only members of their family who have legal options to work,” the researchers said. They believe the “temporary and precarious nature of DACA incentivized work over schooling and led to higher dropout rates among undocumented students.”

Young adults without parents

In an era of so-called “helicopter parenting” – with most parents acknowledging they can be overprotective – new research finds that many young adults in the U.S. are without one or both parents in their lives. About one-in-four young adults lack “an active relationship with at least one parent,” according to a paper presented by Caroline Sten Hartnett of the University of South Carolina and two co-authors. Among U.S. 25- to 32-year-olds, 20% have no father figure in their lives, and 6% have no mother figure. Most without a father in their lives either lost their father to death (9%) or never had a father figure (7%). For most young adults without mothers, it is because their mother had died (5%).

The researchers (who also included Karen L. Fingerman of the University of Texas at Austin and Kira S. Birditt of the University of Michigan) analyzed data from 5,088 young adults interviewed for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. That data, the newest available, are from 2008-2009, but Hartnett said she knows of no estimates from other sources of young adults without parents.

Young adults without mothers or fathers in their lives had parents with fewer average years of education compared with other young adults. They also were more likely to be black than white. Researchers had thought they would find that sons were more likely than daughters to lack ties to one or both parents, but they found no difference by gender.

Among those without a parental relationship, a smaller share were estranged from their mothers (1%) than had a deceased mother, or from their fathers (4%) than had a deceased father.

Why is this important? Parental support matters as young adults take longer these days to get educated, get married or establish their own households. The most common living arrangement for young adults today is to live with their parents, not in their own home, and they are staying there for longer periods of time. Young adults without one or both parental figures were less educated and had lower self-rated health, though the researchers acknowledged that could be linked to their disadvantaged backgrounds growing up.

Measuring same-sex marriage

The Census Bureau has given priority attention to improving its statistics on same-sex spouses, due to evidence that its estimates are too high. Agency researchers have estimated that only about two-thirds of the 252,000 same-sex married couples counted in the 2013 American Community Survey are really same-sex married couples. In a paper presented at the PAA conference, researchers reported on how they have experimented with changing their data collection and editing procedures to “greatly improve the quality of the estimate of same-sex married couple households.” A final decision on implementing these changes will be based on the results of later tests.

The bureau counts same-sex spouses by using respondents’ answers to two different questions: one about their sex and one about their relationship status. The relationship question asks how everyone else in the household is related to the person who fills out the questionnaire. The options now include “husband or wife” and “unmarried partner,” among others. So someone who checks “husband or wife” and is the same sex as his or her spouse is counted in a same-sex marriage.

Many of the erroneously categorized same-sex married couples are actually opposite-sex married couples where one spouse checked the wrong gender box, according to census research. So in test surveys during 2015 and 2016, agency researchers rewrote the relationship questionnaire to include options for “opposite-sex husband/wife/spouse” and “same-sex husband/wife/spouse” to offer additional verification. People who responded electronically and gave inconsistent answers to the sex and relationship questions were alerted and offered a chance to change their response. The bureau hopes that electronic responses – primarily over the internet – will account for half or more of responses in the 2020 census.

The bureau also tested changing how it processes questionnaires with inconsistent answers. The agency created an index of first names that are known to be male or female at least 95% of the time. If someone with a traditionally male or female name checked inconsistent answers to the gender and relationship questions, the agency said it would consider changing the responses if necessary to make them consistent based on prior research of most likely respondent errors.

Super Bowl babies

Does winning the Super Bowl lead to a bump in births nine months later in the home team’s county and state? Since the 2016 Super Bowl, the National Football League has run a series of widely publicized commercials saying that “data suggests” a nine-months-after effect. The NFL even recruited fans with Super Bowl babies to appear in the ads.

But researchers from the University of North Carolina say their findings “cast doubt on the claim that the Super Bowl affects births nine months later.” George M. Hayward and Anna Rybinska analyzed birth statistics for 2003-2012, focusing on October babies in the counties and states with winning and losing teams, because about 80% of Super Bowl conceptions would come to term that month. The researchers found that neither winning nor losing counties experienced a marked spike or drop in births after the Super Bowl. The evidence for a birth boom among fans of the winning team wasn’t any stronger when the researchers looked at statewide birth numbers.

They even widened their lens to look at places with teams that were in the playoffs any given year, and also found no consistent pattern.

Their work has a more serious side. Researchers are interested in the impact of significant events on births. Fertility tends to fall during recessions, for example. But research found that births rose after some other negative events – Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, for example. Other events, such as the infamous 1965 New York City blackout, had no impact, according to research. As for happier events, there is less research showing an impact, though the researchers did cite evidence of a boom in local births nine months after an important win on a last-minute goal by FC Barcelona.

Topics: Birth Rate and Fertility, Demographics, Education, Gay Marriage and Homosexuality, Immigration, Parenthood

  1. Photo of D’Vera Cohn

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.

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