Obama administration to change census policy on same-sex marriages

by on June 19, 2009  •  In Social science

The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that the Obama administration is exploring substitutes for the Census Bureau's policy of altering "married" responses when the partner is of the same sex.  For years, the Bureau has asserted that DoMA's bar on any federal laws, regulations or policies recognizing same-sex marriages forces them into this approach. Their policy has been to move those responses into the "unmarried same-sex partner" category.  According to the WSJ, the administration has "abandoned" that interpretation of DoMA.

Since last summer, a group of advocates has been meeting with Census officials to find other ways that census data could be reported, without violating DoMA but also without losing important information on the demographics of lgbt Americans. (An example would be not to edit the responses but to report them as "self-identified" married couples, or something to that effect.)

Happily, this spade work seems to be paying off, as the administration scrambles for ways to mollify the community.  HUGE credit here goes to Gary Gates, senior policy fellow at the Williams Institute, who has been working these issues literally since the last census, and whose analysis of census and other data has helped make the Williams Institute the center of empirical research on lgbt issues.

Interestingly, two Census Bureau demographers presented a paper last month at an academic conference, using data that existed – but was not officially reported – on same-sex married couples.

WSJ article is after the jump.

WASHINGTON — The White House said Thursday it was seeking ways to include same-sex marriages, unions and partnerships in 2010 Census data, the second time in a week the administration has signaled a policy change of interest to the gay community.

The administration has directed the Census Bureau to determine changes needed in tabulation software to allow for same-sex marriage data to be released early in 2011 with other detailed demographic information from the decennial count. The bureau historically hasn't released same-sex marriage data….

White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said "the administration continues to make progress on the president's longstanding commitment to promoting equality for [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] Americans."…

The Census Bureau has long collected data on same-sex marriages when people chose to report it. White House officials said the previous administration interpreted the federal Defense of Marriage Act as prohibiting the release of the data. The Obama administration has abandoned that interpretation….

An accurate statistical snapshot of legally married same-sex couples may be elusive. Before the White House's plan emerged, Howard Hogan, associate director for demographic programs at the Census Bureau, said data from its 2007 American Community Survey showed more than 340,000 same-sex couples as being in marriages. But according to data from Massachusetts, the only state that permitted gay marriages in 2007, about 11,000 marriage licenses were issued for same-sex couples.

The Obama administration was under pressure to change the Census policy. Rep. Mike Quigley (D., Ill.) sent a letter Tuesday to Mr. Obama, urging him to order the bureau to release same-sex marriage data as part of its standard tabulation of the 2010 Census.

Democratic Reps. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Steve Israel of New York and 51 other lawmakers wrote to White House Budget Director Peter Orszag last month, asking him to work with the bureau's parent agency, the Commerce Department, to reconsider the policy. Mr. Israel said the broad support for his letter shows that Congress has a real "appetite" for movement on this issue.

The original plan for handling these marriages in the 2010 Census was controversial among some statisticians and gay activists. Following procedures employed in 2000, the bureau had planned to use a computer program that recategorized spouses in same-sex marriages as unmarried partners. For the 1990 count, the bureau simply altered the gender designation of one partner.

Some members of the 2010 Census Advisory Committee, composed of private statisticians and members of nonprofit groups, said they think that the bureau has handled same-sex marriages irresponsibly. Ed Spar, a member of the committee and the executive director of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, said altering data like the bureau has done with same-sex marriages "does not make any sense."

William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said it is important to release this data for policy and social analysis. Gary Gates, an expert in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender demographic data at the University of California at Los Angeles, called the administration's move "a very positive step," adding that he would like to see more details.


2 Responses to Obama administration to change census policy on same-sex marriages

  1. @robotsoul June 19, 2009 at 3:27 PM

    The census change will make it easier to identify the number of voters he is alienating by dragging his feet on LGBT legislation. However, President Obama has been making substantive baby steps declaring June Pride Month, changing the census and the Domestic Benefits and Obligations Act which he signed yesterday. Hopefully, these moves are a signal of changes to come. Here is a bit more on the DBOA which extends benefits to the same -sex spouses of federal employees: link to newsy.com

  2. Phoenix Woman June 22, 2009 at 12:31 PM

    Interestingly, transgenders are given a big boost by the memorandum. The irony here is that John Aravosis, the leader of the faction dissing Obama over the DoJ brief (and which also condemns the memorandum as a weak sop), is not exactly trans-friendly: link to bilerico.com

    He’s also been caught using charming terms like “field Negro” to describe people he doesn’t like: link to bloggerinterrupted.com

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