High marks for Census

What a difference a bureaucracy makes.

The Census Bureau has for the first time released a count of homogamous unmarried and married couples from the Decennial Census. This was occasioned by an Obama administration decision to reinterpret the Defense of Marriage Act – which had previously been used to prevent such a count. Although the annual American Community Survey had already started collecting figures on married homogamous couples, this is the first time for the symbolically and demographically important Decennial Census.

But because Obama only got elected in 2008, it was too late to make a crucial correction to (some of) the Decennial Census forms before they went out in 2010. As a result, millions of people completed a form which had a layout that just vaguely encouraged an error in checking the “sex” boxes. And if one out of every 1,000 of the 130 million heterogamous married couples makes that mistake, the number of homogamous married couples — about 130,000 — doubles. And that’s what happened, more or less. Hence the corrected numbers released today.

Culture shift

The culture shift at Census is not just in counting gay and lesbian married couples. They have also done this with a high degree of transparency (even allowing me, as an unpaid consultant, to publish with the experimental data they collected).

Here is the video they released today, explaining the situation. I like a few things about it:

  • It’s truly scientifically informative, and even admits that, “as scientists, demographers, and statisticians, we are obligated…”
  • They explain that there were errors, and that they tried to correct them. (They don’t get into the details — but that’s in a thorough technical paper.)
  • They show actual man-man and woman-woman couples filling out their forms, including a couple with children.
  • I sort of like the little man and woman icons they use in the chart (a recurring issue). The bodies are the same, but the clothes are different. I can get behind that, what with the social construction of gender difference. On the other hand, it’s too bad the man is naked and the woman is wearing a skirt, because of the man=normal / woman=different connotation.

All in all, this is good progress, in my opinion. I credit to Census Bureau Director Robert Groves, who coincidentally is a real sociologist, as well as Martin O’Connell and the others who do the work on family stuff at the Bureau. In the press release, Groves is quoted as saying,

We understand how important it is for all groups to have accurate statistics that reflect who we are as a nation. As scientists, we noticed the inconsistency and developed the revised estimates to provide a more accurate portrait of the number of same-sex couples.  We’re providing all three – the revised, original and ACS estimates – together to provide users with the full, transparent picture of our current measurement of same-sex couples.

7 thoughts on “High marks for Census

  1. Hi Phil,
    Thanks for calling attention to this — it’s a useful illustration/discussion point for both my methods and intro classes. Who knew the Census Bureau had a YouTube presence.

    As for the man/woman signs — while I was in Jacksonville, FL last year for the SSS meetings, I spotted these bathroom signs which (while still having the male unclothed/female clothed issue) I found really interesting because of the diversity of body shapes. I could not bring myself to snap a picture, but fortunately the artist has them on his www site (http://www.gregorturk.com/publicart.htm)



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