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Funny Numbers Pervade Census Data

May 20, 2001

The traditional American family had a terrific April followed by a terrible May. “Nuclear Family Makes Comeback,” said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 13. On May 15, a Post-Gazette headline and story announced the opposite: “Two-Parent Families Less Common.” The Los Angeles Times had contradictory headlines, too: “Report: More Children Lived in Nuclear families in’90s,” then a month later, “Married With Children Is on the Wane in the U.S.”Thank the Census Bureau for the confusion. It managed to turn out back-to-back reports, one saying that the nuclear family was recovering, the other announcing that the nuclear family is tanking. So the American public was badly misinformed about families at least once, and probably twice.In April, the bureau released a survey: “Living Arrangements of Children: Fall 1996.” “The nuclear family rebounds,” said the official press release. It said that the percentage of American children living with their married biological parents had jumped from 51 percent to 56 percent in the years 1991-1996.

But the rise was imaginary. It was based on the peculiar way the census people keep family statistics: a mom and dad living with their biological children don’t count as traditional if another person lives in the household, a boarder perhaps, or a relative. With the economic boom, many grandparents who were staying with a married son or daughter found they could afford their own housing. In the eyes of the Census Bureau, each grandparent who moved out created a new nuclear family out of those left behind. Columnist Maggie Gallagher said the correct headline should have been “Married Families Less Likely to Live With Gramps.”

In fact, the proportion of children living with their married biological parents remained steady at 62 percent from 1991 to 1996. David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values got that number by diving into the bureau’s statistics and doing his own arithmetic. When questioned by Gallagher, census official Jason Fields said Blankenhorn’s number was correct, though he did not explain why the public should have to figure out this important statistic on its own. “Children are neither more or less likely to live with their own two biological parents” than they were in 1991, he said, acknowledging that no “rebound” had actually occurred.

Last week’s 2000 census report on families also generated some odd and misleading journalism. By framing statistics in terms of the total number of households, it produced off-kilter headlines like the one in The New York Times: “For First Time, Nuclear Families Drop Below 25 Percent of Households.” Another newspaper headline said: “Traditional Families Fading as Single-Person Households Gain.” The not-so-subliminal message here was that traditional families are dwindling away and perhaps disappearing (though 62 percent of all kids are still in them). This was an impression generated by the Census Bureau’s use of total households as a yardstick.

Even if the number of nuclear families were rising, they would likely account for a shrinking percentage of households. Americans live longer and marry later, so they live alone more in youth and old age. More households are created by longevity and affluence. But this has nothing to do with the status of nuclear families.

The use of household stats to make nuclear families seem anachronistic and irrelevant is an old story in the 30-year war over the family. A decade ago, people who wanted to downgrade traditional homes were saying that “Ozzie and Harriet” families were only 10 percent of U.S. households. One trick to get the percentage down was to count the family as nontraditional if mom had any job at all in the workforce, even just a couple of hours a week. Empty-nesters and newlyweds were nontraditional, too.

Ex-Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder forced the number down to 7 percent by defining “Ozzie and Harriet” families as those with exactly two children — families with one or three kids were nontraditional. Blankenhorn charges that last week’s census report is just a “slightly more sophisticated version” of Patricia Schroeder’s cooked numbers.Is the Census Bureau playing a Schroeder-like political game with family numbers? Could be. Congress should ask. The bureau certainly played politics on racial and ethnic numbers. Treating Hispanics as if they were a nonwhite race made it seem as if white Americans were well on their way to becoming a minority in America. But half of Hispanics consider themselves white. Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson accused the bureau of “quietly abetting the process of demoting and removing white Hispanics” from the white majority to make it seem smaller. Now the bureau is arranging numbers that make the percentage of traditional families seem smaller.

We need to know who makes these decisions at the Census Bureau and why. We also should know why the bureau keeps compiling data in a way that obscures family trends. What is the trend line for the percentage of children living with married parents? Thanks to Blankenhorn’s private arithmetic, we know this crucial number for 1991-1996, but not after. Maybe Congress can get the Bureau interested in giving us the facts we need and staying out of politics.

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