A government proposal to trim five marriage-related questions from a key Census Bureau survey is attracting blowback from scholars and research groups who say the data are essential to tracking changes in the American family, including patterns in same-sex marriage.
The American Community Survey (ACS) was “designed to fill the gaps in our knowledge” about marriage and divorce in the United States, said Paul R. Amato, family sociology and demography professor at Pennsylvania State University and president of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), which speaks for some 3,400 family researchers, practitioners and educators.
“The small estimated savings from dropping these questions cannot justify the harm done to family research and the nation’s statistical infrastructure,” he wrote in a letter late last month to the Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau.
The agency has asked for written public comments until Dec. 30 on its proposal to drop five ACS questions that ask people if they married, became widowed or divorced in the last 12 months; how many times they have married; and what year did they last marry.
Jim Treat, chief of the American Community Survey Office, said Thursday that the 72 numbered questions on the ACS were carefully assessed for their benefits to the government and the burden they place on the 3.5 million people who answer the survey each year.
The five marriage questions — plus queries on the type of bachelor’s degree and on businesses on a property — were all deemed to be of “low benefit” to the government, said Mr. Treat. In addition, there was some resistance to the marriage questions as something the federal government had no business asking.
Once the comment period is over, Mr. Treat said, the hundreds of responses will be reviewed and a report will be given by April 1 to the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB could request another round of public comments before it makes its final decision, noted Tasha Boone, assistant division chief in the ACS office. No changes would go into effect until 2016, officials said.
Still, the idea of losing this marriage data — especially for subgroups like Asians, millennials, same-sex couples and the elderly — alarms many social scientists and groups such as the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota, the Population Association of America, the Council on Contemporary Families, and the Association of Population Centers.
“With marriage rates declining steeply, and with 40 percent of children now being born outside of marriage, this seems like a terrible time for the federal government to lose interest” in these family statistics, Mr. Amato told The Washington Times Thursday.
“It would be a tragedy to lose these questions,” added W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology and director of the National Marriage Project at University of Virginia.
Weakening “our annual mini-census” on “the core ingredient of community is astounding,” said Patrick Fagan, who directs the Marriage and Religion Research Institute at the Family Research Council.
“It is analogous to the Bureau of Labor Statistics … dropping data on income, jobs or productivity,” he added. “Maybe it’s time for the Congress to directly look into this,” he added.