The Census Bureau, which struggles to keep up with the rapid changes in American life, is about to start categorizing same-sex married couples as families.
The 2013 American Community Survey results, which will be reported in September, will mark the first time the census integrates an estimated 180,000 same-sex married couples with statistics concerning the nation’s 56 million families. Until now, they had been categorized as unmarried partners, even when couples reported themselves as spouses.
Efforts to count the relatively small slice of same-sex couples who are married have been beset by accuracy problems. Following the 2010 Census, statisticians reduced the estimate of same-sex married couples by 28 percent after concluding that more straight couples had mismarked the gender categories. The census adjusted the results by looking at first names and changing the gender when there was a 95 percent chance of a mistake.
“While I fully endorse this change, because it’s the right thing to do, we’re not completely sure how reliable the data will be to start,” said Gary Gates, who studies gay demographics at the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles Law School. “But on the social and cultural side, it’s important to tell researchers and the public that the federal government views these people as families and these couples as married. That in itself has utility.”
Census officials hope the accuracy will be improved by the 2020 Census. They are testing questions that they hope to introduce in surveys — but not until 2016. People will be given four explicit options to check about their relationship — opposite-sex spouses, opposite-sex unmarried partners, same-sex spouses or same-sex partners. They also will be asked whether they are in a registered domestic partnership or a civil union.