U.S. Census 2020 To Ask Question on Same-Sex Couples

The following was written by D’vera Cohn of the Pew Research Center:

new question about citizenship on the 2020 census form is in the headlines these days, but the U.S. Census Bureau also plans other changes for the next national count. Among them: For the first time, the agency will add specific check boxes for same-sex couples to identify themselves, and it will ask people who check the white or black race boxes to say more about their national origins.

The bureau’s list of 2020 questions, sent to Congress for review late last month, also was notable for what it did not include. Despite years of research into possible benefits of combining the race and Hispanic questions on the form, the bureau will continue to ask them separately. Bureau researchers had said the combined question produced more complete and accurate data, especially about Hispanics. The census form also will not include a much-researched check box for people of Middle Eastern or North African origins.

The 2020 census is to ask seven data questions: age, sex, Hispanic origin, race, relationship status, homeownership status (own or rent) and citizenship. The bureau also listed several follow-up questions it will ask to make sure that everyone who usually lives in the household being surveyed is included.

The citizenship question, which has been challenged in court, will be asked last to “minimize any impact on decennial census response rates,” according to a memo from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the Census Bureau.

Census has overcounted same-sex couples

The new check boxes for same-sex couples are an attempt to fix a long-standing problem of Census Bureau overcounts of these couples.

Currently, the bureau produces a count of same-sex couples by using people’s answers to two questions – one about respondents’ sex and another about how each person in the household is related to the person who filled out the questionnaire. To date, the options for answering the relationship question have included “husband or wife,” “unmarried partner” (this “unmarried partner” category was added to the census in 1990) and more than a dozen other categories. If, for example, the person who filled out the census form was male, and another man in the same household said he was that person’s “husband or wife,” they were counted as a same-sex married couple. But Census Bureau research found that the majority of same-sex married couples counted in the 2010 census and the 2010 American Community Survey were recorded as opposite-sex couples in Social Security files.

For 2020, the census form will include separate categories for “opposite-sex” and “same-sex” spouses and unmarried partners. The new wording is meant to be an additional backstop against misreporting. If people give inconsistent answers to the relationship and gender questions when responding online, a question will pop up alerting the respondent of the discrepancy. If there is an inconsistency on a written questionnaire, the bureau will have the option to change an answer.

There is growing demand for good data about same-sex couples. Same-sex marriage is not tracked consistently by all states, and some couples marry abroad. More broadly, the rise in same-sex partnerships has fueled demand for more data on these couples. Among the uses for the data are to study the well-being of children in different types of living arrangements and to forecast demand for benefits based on marital status.

The four categories for opposite- and same-sex spouses and opposite- and same-sex unmarried partners are among 16 categories to be offered as answers to the relationship question, two more than in the 2010 census. The form also will bring back the “foster child” category that was dropped for reasons of space in 2010. The 2020 form is to drop the “roomer or boarder” category that has been on the census form for more than a centurybut is a far less common arrangement than it used to be.

Questionnaire will ask for details on racial ancestry

The 2020 census form will use similar questions on race and ethnicity as in 2010, first asking whether someone is Hispanic or not, then asking that person’s racial category. The bureau studied combining the two questions, and researchers said that it produced generally better data for Hispanics, many of whom have avoided answering the race question in the past.

But the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, which oversees how data about race and ethnicity are collected on federal forms, did not act on the Census Bureau’s suggested changes in question categories, so the agency will stick with the two-question format.

Bureau researchers had also recommended adding a new racial or ethnic category for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent, who now generally are counted as white. But the head of the bureau’s population division, Karen Battle, said the bureau needs to do more research on the option, because there is debate as to whether the category would be counted as a race or an ethnicity.

The 2020 census questionnaire will ask white and black respondents for the first time to write in detail about their national origins. The question will supply examples of the most commonly used answers, such as “German” and “Lebanese” under “white” and “Jamaican” or “Somali” under black.” (About half of white and black respondents have supplied additional detail in tests of this option, according to census officials.)

Another change from past censuses is that the question about race also will drop the word “Negro,” so the category will be “Black or African Am.” Census Bureau research found that many people found it offensive. The word “Negro” was added in 1900 on census forms to replace “colored,” one of many changes in racial terminology since the first census in 1790.


Peter Scarborough April 14, 2018 at 8:02 am

The question about citizenship is not new, there were questions concerning citizenship and/or national origin on every census from 1850 to 1940.


Looks like I need to write “European” since my ancestry is from all over.


I agree with Rick. I’m all over Europe.


myra's grandotter April 14, 2018 at 1:03 pm

Interesting. How many centuries is the point of origin intended to cover? Most recent immigrant in my lines is 150 years ago. Given the numbers of people who have done DNA tests for ethnicity, this question may cause a lot of confusion unless there are directions for percentages and timeframes. European is a good answer, though.
One prays this census will be kept individually anonymous for the full 72 year period. Detailed ancestry information will be bright jewels for future genealogists. But the potential for current misuse is very dangerous.


I was also trying to figure out how to write Finnish English Irish Scottish in the 16 spaces allotted. That question needs a bit of rethinking if it is to be of any use at all. They used to ask where your parents were born. That would be less useful now, but if they want information on ethnicity, they do need to give us the space to provide it.


David Paul Davenport April 15, 2018 at 3:25 pm

I’m very concerned about the possible abuse of the “same-sex married couples” question. It seems to me that this will open the door to legal claims about possible discrimination in much the same way that Courts use census data about race, sex, and age (etc) to determine significant variation from “community norms.” Frankly, IF we as a society are striving to make justice “color blind” we need eliminate questions that encourage us to document our differences.


This is surely a tough question for many, especially readers of this blog who know the complexity of their ancestry. I don’t envy the Census Bureau researchers who struggled with the questions. Race and ethnicity have never been as simple as checkboxes on a form, and the frequent surprises in DNA tests shows just how complex it can be.

As for the potential for legal claims for discrimination: Closing our eyes to data that could show patterns of discrimination will not make our society color blind. When 40% of our population supports a president who thinks white supremacists are morally equivalent to those protesting white supremacy, we’re sadly further from the ideal of color blindness than we might have hoped two years ago. The good news is that generation after generation, young people are consistently less bigoted than their parents. When great-great-grandchildren of slaveowners embrace their black and brown fellow citizens as equals, and even many young evangelicals recognize each person’s right to openly love who they want without fear, our society is relentlessly becoming closer to the ideals of its founders, despite the bigots that remain among us. The more I research families, the more I appreciate that, as in the Charley Pride song All His Children, we’re all part of the family of man. When we ALL realize that, we’ll be truly color blind, and we can take these questions off the Census form.


    David Paul Davenport April 17, 2018 at 12:59 pm

    Bigotry is bad, but promoting a political agenda on Dick Eastman’s newsletter is far worse. We will never be a “color blind” society as long as some people want to be like the pigs on Animal Farm who were more equal than the other animals. In my opinion that’s exactly what people do when they insist on “special treatment” for past injustice such as monetary reparations for slavery that lawfully ended more than 150 years ago when my ancestors bled to end slavery. We have become a society based on defacto quotas much to our shame despite the admonition against this by the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr.


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