Monday, September 30, 2013

The Problem with Households, as Currently Defined

The Census Bureau is tying itself in knots trying to categorize our living arrangements based on the old-fashioned concept of a marriage license. Since 1950, the percentage of households headed by married couples has fallen from 78 to 48 percent, yet a marriage license is still central to the Census Bureau's definition of household types. Here is the distribution of households by type in 2013...

Married couples: 48%
People living alone: 27%
Female-headed families, no spouse present: 13%
Male-headed families, no spouse present: 5%
Male-headed nonfamilies: 4%
Female-headed nonfamilies: 3%

The last four household types on the list (female- and male-headed families/nonfamilies) account for a substantial 25 percent of total households. But here's the problem: many of the households that fall into those four categories are interchangeable and would be recognized as the same type of household, except for the lack of a marriage license.

This is how it works. Let's say two unmarried people, Joe and Ellen, live in an apartment leased in both their names. Depending on who responds to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, their household will be categorized as either a male-headed nonfamily household (Joe responds) or a female-headed nonfamily household (Ellen responds). Let's say Joe and Ellen have a biological child. Depending on who responds to the survey, their household will be categorized as either a male-headed family household (Joe responds) or a female-headed family household (Ellen responds). Let's say the child is Ellen's from a previous relationship. If Ellen responds to the survey, then they live in a female-headed family household. If Joe responds, they live in a male-headed nonfamily household.

If Joe and Ellen had a marriage license, all these permutations of their household type would disappear. They would be a married-couple household regardless of who responded to the survey or the paternity of the child. Perhaps it's time to rethink household definitions, remove marriage from the equation, and recognize "couple" households instead.

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