Eliminating ACS Marriage Questions & Data

The Census Bureau is now evaluating possible changes to the American Community Survey (ACS) questionnaire. See more information. The broader issue at stake may be the process for determining what data are collected/tabulated by the Federal government that are available for public use — and how those data are made accessible.

Updated 1/2/15 … see update at the end of this post

Questions Being Evaluated for Removal/Change
  • Person Question No. 12—Undergraduate Field of Degree—focuses on this person’s Bachelor’s Degree.
  • Person Question No. 21a—Get Married—In the past 12 months did this person get—Married?
  • Person Question No. 21b—Get Widowed—In the past 12 months did this person &get—Widowed?
  • Person Question No. 21c—Get Divorced—In the past 12 months did this person get—Divorced?
  • Person Question No. 22—Times Married—How many times has this person been married?
  • Person Question No. 23—Year Last Married —In what year did this person last get married?

How Might these Changes Affect the Data User — You?
As noted in a recent New York Times story
“We will not even know whether marriage and divorce rates are rising or falling. For all the talk of evidence-based policy, the result will be that important debates on issues including family law, welfare reform, same-sex marriage and the rise of nontraditional families will proceed in a statistical void.
… questions in the American Community Survey … ask people whether they have given birth, married, divorced or been widowed in the past year. Their answers allow demographers to track marriage and divorce rates by age, gender, race and education.
These data have revealed many important social trends, including the rise of sharply different marriage and divorce patterns between rich and poor, and the increase in divorce among older Americans, even as it has fallen for younger people. And they have provided the only statistical window into the adoption of same-sex marriage.”

The questions relating to marriage and divorce need to be retained in some manner.

The Larger Issue
The “Federal Statistical System” is a set of wide-ranging agencies engaged in statistical data collection, tabulation and dissemination. The Census Bureau is by far the largest of these agencies. There is no central statistical office that manages these multi-agency operations; let alone managing how the data might be more effectively organized for improved access and integration.

The call for a national statistical agency has been raised and evaluated many times. This is likely not a good idea for many reasons that will be reviewed in a subsequent post. There is one key reason that that the fragmented/decentralized “system” should be retained somewhat as it now operates — it puts the process of design and operation of the subject matter data development closer to the end users.

The Federal government itself is often engaged in the analysis and interpretation of the data (but not always the case). This is particularly true of many the diverse Census Bureau statistical operations. The Census Bureau does not “think with one mind” or have a singular point of view. No doubt many, many subject matter analysts at Census are not in agreement with possible of removal the ACS marriage/divorce questions. Still, questionnaire content reduction is a mandatory thing to continuously review and needs to be addressed due to OMB oversight, issues of respondent burden, data relevance, and other issues.

Easy Access to the ACS Marriage/Divorce/Living Arrangements Data
See items S024 though S035 in the tables shown for each type of geography .. a “tip of the iceberg” .. in each page, scroll down to the interactive table.
. cities/places
. school districts
. states-metros-counties
. census tracts
. ZIP Code areas

MARITAL STATUS
S024 Males 15 years and over
S025 Never married
S026 Now married, except separated
S027 Separated
S028 Widowed
S029 Divorced
S030 Females 15 years and over
S031 Never married
S032 Now married, except separated
S033 Separated
S034 Widowed
S035 Divorced

Update
The Wall Street Journal story reflects the other item to be dropped — college majors — and the disconnect between the White House and Census Bureau on the need for more information about college majors. Only the ACS provides data to research the value of different college majors/degrees. The ACS Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) can be used to develop custom cross-tabulations of the workforce by college major by income by occupation and/or industry. Such estimates can be developed by Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs) giving metro and regional insights into what earnings could be expected. There are, for example, 69 PUMAs that comprise Los Angeles county.

About the Author
— Warren Glimpse is former senior Census Bureau statistician responsible for innovative data access and use operations. He is also the former associate director of the U.S. Office of Federal Statistical Policy and Standards for data access and use. He has more than 20 years of experience in the private sector developing data resources and tools for integration and analysis of geographic, demographic, economic and business data.

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