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Census Bureau May Stop Asking Marital History Questions


Let's turn now to some proposed changes in how the U.S. documents marital status. Thanks to questions about marital status in the U.S. Census, we know that the divorce rate for older Americans has doubled in recent decades and that a record number of people who are currently married are on their second go-round. But the U.S. Census Bureau now says it may stop gathering martial information. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Trends aside knowing who's married, divorced or widowed in a given year is helpful for government agencies. The Census Bureau's James Treat says the Social Security Administration makes the most use of it.

JAMES TREAT: So they use it in their actuarial analysis as they're projecting spending rates out into the future based on benefits of survivors, widows, divorced couples - those kinds of things.

LUDDEN: But Treat says the administration can get what it needs from states. It does not need local data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, and it does not need two other questions. How many times have you been married? When were you last married? In fact, Treat says those are problematic.

TREAT: There were some complaints associated with asking this information and why we needed to obtain it.

LUDDEN: So people didn't like you delving into their marital background?

TREAT: Correct.

PHILIP COHEN: Americans are funny that way. I mean, we crave this information, and yet we are reluctant to provide it ourselves.

LUDDEN: Philip Cohen is a sociologist at the University of Maryland. He points out marriage is in dramatic decline. Families are growing more complex - having people's marital histories helps researchers understand such shifts and who's affected.

COHEN: Such as, what are the ages? What are the education levels and race or ethnic groups? What's happening with same-sex couples?

LUDDEN: After 2007, Cohen matched marital histories with births and employment status.

COHEN: We really were able to track the impact of the Great Recession on families in a way that would not have been possible without this data.

LUDDEN: The public can comment on whether to drop marital history questions until the end of the year. The Census Bureau will make a final decision next spring. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.