The U.S. Census Bureau will now count same-sex spouses as married couples, rather than grouping them with cohabiting partners. The change will appear in the bureau’s household survey due out in September.
Previously, the Census Bureau categorized same-sex spouses as unmarried partners, even if they said they were married, and the bureau included the figures in published statistics about cohabiting couples.
Supporters of gay marriage describe the bureau’s changes as long overdue and say that recognition by the Census Bureau reflects Americans’ growing acceptance of same-sex relationships and legal recognition by courts in a growing number of states. In the long term, the impact will be to broaden and deepen the statistics available about the families, economic circumstances and other characteristics of same-sex married couples.
The change of policy will require the Census Bureau to go back and re-classify folks who identified themselves as “married” but who were liumarried par partners” because they were of the same sex.
The census first included an option for “unmarried partner” for all couples in the 1990 census and the bureau reported counts from that census for both same-sex and opposite-sex cohabiters. However, the bureau had a policy not to count same-sex couples who said they were married as married couples until now. They changed respondents’ answers in different ways from decade to decade.
For example, if a same-sex couple reported being married in 1990, the bureau changed the sex of one of the spouses because gay marriage was not legal. Then, starting with the 2000 census, the agency changed how it categorized same-sex marriages again. In the 2000 census, if a same-sex couple reported they were married, the bureau changed their status to unmarried. Under its new policy, the bureau will count same-sex couples who say they are spouses as married couples.
The Census Bureau’s new policy “is an important step that shows how Census and U.S. society have changed in attitudes about the meanings of marriage and family,” Gary Gates, who studies the demographics of same-sex couples at the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, said in an email. “Analytically, the impact of the change is relatively minimal because there are still data quality issues to be addressed and because the total number of married same-sex couples is not large enough to substantively alter broader statistics about married couples and families in the U.S.”