- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How old are Americans when they marry? Do they live together first? Do they marry the person they lived with?

Did either spouse get any premarriage education? Were their parents married, divorced or unmarried?

These and hundreds of other questions are essential to understand the family life of we the people.

One would think the federal government would collect tons of data about these “vital statistics” since it dispenses billions of dollars each year in family-related services. But Uncle Sam has been slow to do so - it even stopped collecting detailed marriage and divorce data in 1996.

This gigantic omission is now being corrected.

In recent months, the Census Bureau added new marriage questions to its annual American Community Survey (ACS). Now, besides reporting their current marital status, some 3 million Americans are being asked about marital events (marriage, divorce, widowed) in the past 12 months, how many marriages they have been in, and the year of their marriage.

Data from these new questions - which will be released later this year - will be an unprecedented treasure trove about American marriage. This is because the ACS, which replaces the “long form” in the decennial census, also captures data about race, ethnicity, income, age, presence of children and (census tract) location.

“I think this new system will be even better than the old system,” said Naomi Goldstein, director of the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families in the Health and Human Services Department.

“Questions about marital status have been included in the census since the 1800s,” she said. “But questions about marital transitions, number of marriages and length of marriage are all new, and I think that will be very valuable for researchers … and policymakers.”

Besides ACS, two other federal surveys - the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) and Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) - provide important data about American families.

You may wonder whether emerging family issues of cohabiting and gay marriage are covered by these surveys. The answer is yes and no.

The NSFG, now in Cycle 7 with about 20,000 participants, promises to be a good magnifying glass for cohabiting since it has dozens of questions about family formation and direct questions about cohabiting. In contrast, the massive ACS will capture cohabiting arrangements among 3 million people, but nothing of their cohabiting histories. SIPP, which is taken every few years and involves about 50,000 households, has no cohabiting questions.

Gay marriage, however, is still all but ignored. This is because the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defines marriage, for federal purposes, as the legal union of one man and one woman. Since DOMA disallows federal recognition of same-sex marriages - regardless of their legality in a state - questions about gay marriage are not included in federal surveys.

Not surprisingly, gay rights groups are urging President-elect Barack Obama to overturn DOMA.

Meanwhile, the ACS provides at least one statistic about gay couples. The latest (2006) ACS found that 0.7 percent of U.S. households were led by unmarried same-sex couples. This translates into 780,000 gay-couple headed households out of nearly 112 million households.

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