Census Bureau's Colossal Blunder

Posted: Apr 26, 2001 12:00 AM
On Friday the 13th of April, the Census Bureau, one of the most trusted sources of information in American life, made a colossal boo-boo. A report called "Living Arrangements of Children: Fall 1996" made a startling claim: "The 'Nuclear Family' Rebounds," as the accompanying official press release put it. "The proportion of children living in a traditional nuclear family with their biological mother and father increased from 51 percent in 1991 to 56 percent in 1996."

The news dropped into newspaper headlines like a demographic Big Bang: "Report: More Children Lived in Nuclear Families in the '90s" (Los Angeles Times); "More Children Live in Traditional Families, Women Marrying Later in Life May Be Behind Trend Reported by Census" (USA Today); "Nuclear Families Bounce Back" (Chicago Sun-Times); "More Children Live in Traditional Family" (Detroit News); "Nuclear Families Make a Comeback" (Baltimore Sun).

Normally reliable news organizations made striking assertions. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, reported, "Between 1991 and 1996, the percentage of American children living with both their biological parents jumped from 51 percent to 56 percent." The Washington Post said: "The share of children living with their biological parents in a married-couple family rose during the 1990s." On ABC's "World News Tonight," Peter Jennings reported: "The Census Bureau said today that the number of children who live with both their parents increased during the 1990s."

Only one problem: It ain't true. Confused by the report's terminology, I contacted Jason Fields of the Census Bureau for a report I co-authored called "The Family 'Rebound' That Wasn't," released by the Institute for American Values on April 23 (www.americanvalues.org).

Are children now more likely to live with their own two married parents? I asked him. The Census Bureau doesn't know for sure, Fields told me, because the 1991 report, used as a baseline "does not distinguish between biological parents who are married and unmarried." OK, then are children at least more likely to live with Mom and Dad, their own two biological parents? He paused a moment to run some tests for statistical significance. "Children are neither more or less likely to live with their own two biological parents," Fields replied.

So why then did the Census Bureau claim the traditional nuclear family was making a comeback? The main reason why more children were classified as living in traditional nuclear families (as, in the Census Bureau's defense, the most diligent reader could discover by a scrupulously close reading) was an increased likelihood that married families were living on their own, without relatives or unrelated individuals in the home. A booming economy made it easier to get by without sharing living space; and married couples who delay fertility until their 30s are more likely to be able to afford their own household. "Married Families Less Likely to Live With Gramps!" would be the honest headline generated by the Census Bureau's actual data.

Why did the Census Bureau choose such a misleading way of classifying "traditional nuclear families"? "That is the classification used in the 1991 report, and we wanted to be able to compare across two points in time," Fields told me. Fair enough. The problem is, and the Census Bureau should know this, that neither common sense nor social science evidence suggests that renting a room to a friend, or inviting Grandpa to live with you, in any way hurts children's well-being. The question of urgent interest, from the standpoint of evaluating family progress or decline, is whether children are more or less likely to live with their own two (biological or adoptive) parents, and are those parents married?

Our wonderful Census Bureau has the data to answer that question. Why, nearly 10 years after "Murphy Brown" launched a national marriage debate, is it so hard for the American people to pry it out?