Census struggles to reach an accurate number on gay marriages

Census struggles to reach an accurate number on gay marriages

Census struggles to reach an accurate number on gay marriages

gaymarriages1.jpgThe FINANCIAL -- Same-sex marriage is now legal in Washington, D.C., and 17 states (and Arkansas will join them, if a lower-court judge’s ruling last week is upheld). Now the federal government’s task is to produce an accurate count of same-sex married couples, according to Pew Research Center.

mexico_city_gay_marriage-9631.jpgThe FINANCIAL -- Same-sex marriage is now legal in Washington, D.C., and 17 states (and Arkansas will join them, if a lower-court judge’s ruling last week is upheld). Now the federal government’s task is to produce an accurate count of same-sex married couples, according to Pew Research Center.


Acknowledging a “very serious problem” of flawed same-sex marriage data, the U.S. Census Bureau is testing new marriage and relationship questions on its surveys in hopes of producing more accurate numbers in the next few years. According to a presentation earlier this month, the bureau found problems with the data “much worse” than the agency expected.

There is intense interest in the numbers and characteristics of same-sex married couples, as a growing number of states have legalized same-sex marriage and the federal government—reacting to a Supreme Court ruling last year—has expanded the rights of those couples. The numbers are important to know as a measure of how society is changing, to gauge the well-being of same-sex married-couple families and to help government agencies assess the need for various types of programs. For example, marital status can affect eligibility for some programs such as welfare and food stamps, according to Pew Research Center.


Some states that allow same-sex marriage collect their own data about the number of such unions, but the Census Bureau is the nation’s major source of numbers about both counts and characteristics of same-sex married couples. So far, it’s found the task challenging.

The Census Bureau doesn’t ask a direct question about same-sex marriage. Instead, it produces estimates of same-sex couples based mainly on respondents’ answers to questions about their sex and about how other people in a household are related to the householder (the person who fills out the census form). The current relationship question has more than a dozen answer categories, including “husband/wife,” as well as “unmarried partner,” an option added in 1990. The bureau then matches this information with the spouse or partner’s answers to the sex question to determine whether they are a same-sex or opposite-sex couple.

After the bureau released its first count of same-sex married-couple households three years ago, using data from the 2010 census, it acknowledged that the numbers were inflated and thus less than ideal to rely upon, according to Pew Research Center.


The problem with the initial same-sex couple data is that it likely contained too many heterosexual couples. In 2011, the bureau announced that more than one-in-four of all same-sex couples counted in the 2010 census was likely an opposite-sex couple, and it published markedly lower revised totals. The problem was far worse for same-sex married couples, 62% of whom were likely opposite-sex married couples, than for same-sex unmarried couples, 7% of whom were likely opposite-sex unmarried couples.

The major reason why same-sex married-couple counts are artificially high, according to census officials, is that one partner in some opposite-sex married couples unintentionally checked the wrong sex box on the census questionnaire. This is relatively rare, but if even a small share of the nation’s millions of opposite-sex married couples makes a mistake, it can have a large impact in driving up the relatively small number of same-sex married couples. The 2012 American Community Survey estimated there are about 182,000 U.S. same-sex married couples compared with about 56 million opposite-sex married couples.


In new research presented at this month’s Population Association of America conference, bureau analysts reported that the 2010 census overcount of same-sex married couples may have been even worse than previously reported. When researchers matched census records for individual couples with Social Security files, 73% of same-sex married couples counted in the census turned out to be opposite-sex married couples in Social Security files. The analysts also looked at results from a separate census survey that asked the same question (the American Community Survey), and found that 57% of who marked themselves as same-sex married couples were actually opposite-sex married couples, according to Social Security files.

The new research also confirmed that the problem is much less frequent among same-sex unmarried couples, compared with married ones, in both the 2010 census and American Community Survey.

An unpublished bureau paper describing the results of the overcount research by Daphne Lofquist and Jamie Lewis, both bureau demographers and statisticians, called the inflated estimates of same-sex married couples in the American Community Survey a “very serious problem” and “much worse than we expected.” The paper also reported on results of its tests of reworded relationship questions on census surveys that ask directly about same-sex relationships, which the bureau hopes will provide a check against mismarks in the sex question. In the relationship question, they experimented with replacing “husband/wife” and “unmarried partner” with four new options: “Opposite-sex husband/wife/spouse,” “opposite-sex unmarried partner,” “same-sex husband/wife/spouse” and “same-sex unmarried partner.”


The bureau also is testing an expanded question about marital status. Now, people can choose “now married,” “widowed,” “divorced,” “separated,” or “never married.” The agency is considering adding questions about whether someone is “living with a boyfriend/girlfriend or partner,” or is “currently in a registered domestic partnership or civil union.”

However, the new questions did not eliminate the basic problem of mismatches between answers to the sex question and the relationship question among the same-sex married couples who were counted—about 56% in the American Housing Survey, which the bureau conducts for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The results were “not encouraging,” the paper said, and indicate that opposite-sex couples are mistakenly marking the sex or relationship categories, according to Pew Research Center.