Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Get with the times, United States Census!

Do you have 2010 Census fever? I know I do. But I question if the United States government has its equity sails at full mast.

The Wall Street Journal reports:
Question No. 1 is simple enough: name, which the Census Bureau will use if it needs to call for clarification about the other five questions. ... But question No. 2 -- "How is this person related" to the head of household -- gets quickly complicated.
My eyebrows raised when I read that the government still asks families to identify a single "head of household." It's antiquated and unrealistic to operate in a framework where each household has just one breadwinner/decision maker/whatever makes you a head of household. How often, in families led by heterosexual couples, are men chosen by default as the head of household? Undoubtedly simplifying this aspect of the survey makes statistical analyses less complicated, and the government isn't implicitly encouraging men--or women--to deem themselves Supreme Household Leader. But in a survey that exists for the sole purpose of accurately depicting how Americans live, how accurate is it to presume that each household has just one head?

But this seemingly narrow-minded (and patriarchal) approach to data collection didn't ruffle my feathers nearly as much as this did:
Who knew that asking people their age, gender and how they're related to the folks they live with could be so complicated? ...

Question No. 3 asks gender, with the admonition to "Mark ONE box" -- male or female. Whether the Census Bureau included that instruction or left it out in the 2005 field test, the results were the same. Either way, 0.05% of those asked -- that would mean 150,000 in a population of 300 million -- still checked both.
Um, you mean you can't comprehend that some Americans identify with neither the male nor the female sexes? Were you living in a cave in Antarctica when the word "transgender" was introduced to the English language? The confusion (and insulting, patronizing, how-stupid-are-if-you-don't-know-if-you're-a-boy-or-a-girl? tone) expressed by this Wall Street Journal author does not necessarily reflect similar ignorance of transgender issues on part of the Census Bureau. However, the absence of an "Other: _____" box for the sex identification question is indicative of the government's insensitivity to the reality that not everyone is male or female. Certainly this field would invite a lot of smart-ass answers, but if the Census is progressive enough to include an "Other: _____" box for race (which itself yields some out-there responses), they can make the effort to acknowledge that is sex is not a dichotomous variable.


Thinker said...

I imagine it unlikely that the Census Bureau will follow your suggestions, Rebecca. Since most businesses and researchers using Census data find great value in the ability to compare data from one census to another; changes as fundamental as those you suggest would make such comparisons difficult.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

They changed the race question when it was sociopolitically necessary.

Thinker said...

They did change the race checkoff after a very long, drawnout campaign, but not (as I recall) in a way that satisfied those wanting multiracial categories.