The Census Bureau faces logistical challenges next year in classifying legally married same-sex couples as married.
The agency has said that the 2010 Census will report the number of married same-sex couples for the first time, a decision that thrills gay-rights advocates. It may seem like a simple change, but adjusting how the Census tallies people is not a simple matter, requiring everything from redesigning computer programs to testing accuracy.
"The census questionnaire has not evolved as quickly as America has," says Nick Kimball, spokesman for the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau.
Since the 2000 Census, anyone who reported being married to someone of the same gender automatically has been reclassified as an "unmarried partner." In 2000, no state allowed same-sex marriages. The federal Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
Today, six states allow same-sex marriage. Last month, the Obama administration extended some job benefits to gay partners of federal workers and said it wants to ensure that same-sex couples "are accurately reflected in census reports."
Government lawyers have determined that the federal marriage act does not prohibit the census from reporting how many same-sex couples say they are married.
"There are thousands of married couples across the country who are same-sex couples," says Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which has been pushing for census recognition. "I happen to be one of them."
If the census uses current methods, it would "unmarry people who checked off 'married couples,' " — even in states where same-sex marriage is legal, Carey says.
The census has been exploring ways to count this relatively new population for a few years, but the pressure to do it by 2010 is mounting. The government has been meeting with gay rights advocates, statisticians and others to study the change.
Some of the challenges:
- Changing the software that processes census questionnaires so that it doesn't automatically convert same-sex married couples to unmarried partners. Census is not confident it can make the change by 2010.
- The federal marriage act may not apply to the census but it does apply to every other federal agency that uses census data to dole out federal funds and enforce fair housing and equal opportunity laws.
- Any change in the way the census is tabulated has a domino effect on most other data collected. Counting same-sex couples as married stretches the definition of family. Data used by all federal agencies — from family income to family size — would have to be reclassified.
"We know for certain the vast majority (of same-sex couples) are not legally married," says Gary Gates, demographer at UCLA's Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy.
Gates estimates 35,000 same-sex couples are married, but recent surveys show that 10 times as many report that they are.
How the census will report its findings is still to be decided. "This is an important issue and legitimate question that we're working to resolve," Kimball says.
"We will certainly be holding them to this policy change," Carey says.