Decadally-biased marriage recall in the American Community Survey

Do people forget when they got married?

In demography, there is a well-known phenomenon known as age-heaping, in which people round off their ages, or misremember them, and report them as numbers ending in 0 or 5. We have a measure, known as Whipple’s index, that estimates the extent to which this is occurring in a given dataset. To calculate this you take the number of people between ages 23 and 62 (inclusive), and compare it to five-times the number of those whose ages end in 0 or 5 (25, 30 … 60), so there are five-times as many total years as 0 and 5 years.

If the ratio of 0/5s to the total is less than 105, that’s “highly accurate” by the United Nations standard, a ratio 105 to 110 is “fairly accurate,” and in the range 110 to 125 age data should be considered “approximate.”

I previously showed that the American Community Survey’s (ACS) public use file has a Whipple index of 104, which is not so good for a major government survey in a rich country. The heaping in ACS apparently came from people who didn’t respond to email or mail questionnaires and had to be interviewed by Census Bureau staff by phone or in person. I’m not sure what you can do about that.

What about marriage?

The ACS has a great data on marriage and marital events, which I have used to analyze divorce trends, among other things. Key to the analysis of divorce patterns is the question, “When was this person last married?” (YRMARR) Recorded as a year date, this allows the analyst to take into account the duration of marriage preceding divorce or widowhood, the birth of children, and so on. It’s very important and useful information.

Unfortunately, it may also have an accuracy problem.

I used the ACS public use files made available by IPUMS.org, combining all years 2008-2017, the years they have included the variable YRMARR. The figure shows the number of people reported to have last married in each year from 1936 to 2015. The decadal years are highlighted in black. (The dropoff at the end is because I included surveys earlier than those years.)

year married in 2016.xlsx

Yikes! That looks like some decadal marriage year heaping. Note I didn’t highlight the years ending in 5, because those didn’t seem to be heaped upon.

To describe this phenomenon, I hereby invent the Decadally-Biased Marriage Recall index, or DBMR. This is 10-times the number of people married in years ending in 0, divided by the number of people married in all years (starting with a 6-year and ending with a 5-year). The ratio is multiplied by 100 to make it comparable to the Whipple index.

The DBMR for this figure (years 1936-2015) is 110.8. So there are 1.108-times as many people in those decadal years as you would expect from a continuous year function.

Maybe people really do get married more in decadal years. I was surprised to see a large heap at 2000, which is very recent so you might think there was good recall for those weddings. Maybe people got married that year because of the millennium hoopla. When you end the series at 1995, however, the DBMR is still 110.6. So maybe some people who would have gotten married at the end of 1999 waited till New Years day or something, or rushed to marry on New Year’s Eve 2000, but that’s not the issue.

Maybe this has to do with who is answering the survey. Do you know what year your parents got married? If you answered the survey for your household, and someone else lives with you, you might round off. This is worth pursuing. I restricted the sample to just those who were householders (the person in whose name the home is owned or rented), and still got a DBMR of 110.7. But that might not be the best test.

Another possibility is that people who started living together before they were married — which is most Americans these days — don’t answer YRMARR with their legal marriage date, but some rounded-off cohabitation date. I don’t know how to test that.

Anyway, something to think about.

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