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Data! We want data! (so sayeth the social scientists)

Martha Olney, adjunct professor of economics | October 27, 2009

Data are the life blood of the social sciences.  Imagine you want to answer this question:  What is the impact of the availability of legal marriage on gay individuals?  You could refine the question to look at child rearing, or saving for retirement, or patterns of spending, or labor mobility, or any of a host of things.

You might want to design your study to compare gay and straight people in states with and without legal marriage.  How did the introduction of marriage in a state change behavior of gay individuals?

You might then want to expand your study to see whether the behavioral change is due to the availability of marriage in one’s home state, or the possibility of marrying even in a neighboring state.  Is it just making the commitment or also having that commitment recognized in my home community that matters?  And then you might want to expand your study further to see if the behavioral change is due to the availability of marriage in any state in the country.  If a couple from North Carolina travels to San Francisco and marries in October 2008 (Hi Chris & Darlene!), does being married alter their behavior?

You’d want to compare married individuals with those who are registered domestic partners, to see whether marriage per se matters.  And you’d want to look at the difference between marriage & domestic partnerships for gay individuals and then for straight individuals, to see if there’s a different marriage effect for one group than for the other.

You’d be doing the sort of work that is done by The Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law:  “advancing critical thought in the field of sexual orientation law and public policy.”  You’d be doing the sort of work captured in Gary Gates’ research summary, “Same-Sex Couples in the 2008 American Community Survey” — but with data for every state and for every couple, not just a sample.  (The ACS is great for some things, but how many gay married couples living in North Carolina are picked up by the ACS?  Probably not enough to analyze.)

Historian Margo Anderson of University of Wisconsin Milwaukee published a book twenty years ago entitled The American Census: A Social History (Yale UP, 1988).  You can find it in the Main or Moffitt library at HA37.U55 A53 1988.  The census questions evolve and change as our society evolves and changes.  Some of us are married now.  We’ll mark “married” when the census form comes.   Whether the census reports the data won’t change how married we are.  But how married we are might ultimately change what the census reports.

Comments to “Data! We want data! (so sayeth the social scientists)

  1. I say follow the Bible: be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth. Can’t do that with same-sex couples. But, I don’t have anything against homosexuals. I also believe what the Bible says about loving your neighbor as yourself. All of us have to find a way to integrate into society.

  2. I guess “how married you are” may change the census reports. Be it race, religion, sexual orientation, or whatever else, there are always going to be minorities, though, in this society. Best thing in my view is to live your life the best you can and not worry about what everyone thinks of you.

  3. Thank you, Gary, for clearing that up. By the way, I came across more information stating that the Census Bureau will report all responses of married same-sex couples without changing anything.

    Therefore the 2010 census is the first that will report the numbers of same-sex couples who describe themselves as married, or more specifically, who use the terms husband and wife. This is very exciting news as I was a bit confused myself.

    The main confusion seemed to be created by the Census Bureau reports which stated that the number of same-sex couples who identify as married would be released separately from the national count on a state-by-state basis. This had been interpreted as a no-count, period, for same-sex couples. Instead it’s just a different way of counting — at least this time.

    From my understanding, such couples will not be included in the official national count of married couples because the Census Bureau does not have time before April to change its editing processes — which “recode” the answer of any person who says he or she is a spouse in a same-sex marriage to “unmarried partner.”

  4. What the government needs to do is come up with a way to guarantee the same rights under the current tax code to protect people who have pooled their financial resources, no matter what their sexual preference is. What about heterosexual, unmarried couples? Shouldn’t they have some rights, too, when it comes to the tax code?

  5. The headline here is inaccurate. Census has not reversed any of its plans regarding counting same-sex married couples in 2010. Folks seem to be misunderstanding what exactly the Census Bureau is planning regarding same-sex couples. As part of Census 2010 they WILL release state-level counts of same-sex spouses and same-sex “unmarried partners”. They will also provide a table showing child-rearing in each of the two couple types.

    As part of the 2008 American Community Survey, the Census Bureau has already provided the first-ever official estimates of the number of same-sex spouses. About 150,000 out of 565,000 same-sex couples identified as spouses in 2008.

    The confusion comes because there are actually only about 35,000 legally married same-sex couples in the US. So it’s clear that most of those 150,000 same-sex spouses are not actually legally married.

    Note that Census 2010 will not actually ask your marital status. It is inferred from describing another adult in the household as the husband/wife of the householder (the reference person on the form). Because of the discordance between legal marital status and the identification of one’s partner as a “husband/wife” among same-sex couples, the Census Bureau has decided to not yet include same-sex spouses among official counts of married couples. Instead, they’ve begun a research project focused on how to get better data on legal marriage along with civil unions and domestic partnership. That is not as simple as it sounds. One recent survey that included “civil union/registered domestic partnership” as responses to a marital status question got more different-sex CUs/DPs than same-sex.

    I want to again clarify that Census WILL release the counts of same-sex spouses. The headline on this blog has made its way around the internet and I worry that this will discourage LGBT people from participating in the Census. That would not be a good thing. Even though Census does not yet directly ask about sexual orientation or gender identity, it’s still very important to get a good count of same-sex couples, both married and unmarried. These data have been vital in so many LGBT policy debates and have really helped to debunk persistent myths about the LGBT community. Further, LGBT engagement in Census outreach (the Bureau has hired LGBT outreach specialists around the country–a Census first) will help to promote the need for better data, including adding questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to government surveys. It may also be useful for LGBT folks to become visible within the broader community mobilization around Census 2010. That could be a source of allies down the road.

  6. Same-sex couples count and therefore we must be counted.
    The prior Census Bureau decision to not count married same-sex couples was yet another way for the federal government to say we do not exist. We already have Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell that says you can serve as long as you are not out and open. We have fought for years to be included in Hate Crimes classifications that in part would provide a mechanism to measure violent acts used to terrorize our community. These efforts to keep us in the closet, to keep us invisible to the public have to end.
    Official recognition in the Census is not only important to social science, but also the court of public opinion. In California, we are in the untenable position of having to ask voters for the fundamental right of marriage, despite the Courts and Legislature extending us that right. UCLA’s Williams Institute has been instrumental in allowing our community to be seen and heard and debunking stereotypes that all same-sex couples are rich, white and live in the Castro and that allowing same-sex couples to marry will cost too much.
    For example, the Williams Institute, using Census data, has shown that same-sex couples really are everybody’s neighbors. We live in every county of California and reflect the diversity of the state. Census data illustrates that gay couples are just as likely, and lesbian couples are more likely, to live in poverty when compared to married couples and therefore these same-sex couples, and particularly the children they raise, would greatly benefit from economic protections extended through marriage. Furthermore, their research has shown that extending marriage benefits in California would increase revenues for state and local governments, as well as the business community.
    So being counted is important. If you get a Census form, fill it out and if you have questions on which box to check, those handy UCLA folks have produced a summary to help:

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