Census Bureau: 4 family questions in the balance

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) -- Beginning in 1940, select households began receiving the American Community Survey, or ACS. This is the census "long form" with more detailed questions about Americans, their households and their socio-economic circumstances.

Included on this form are four simple questions related to marriage. Questions 20-23 ask respondents to indicate marital status and marital history in very generic terms. There is no invasion of privacy or prying in these questions. This year, the Census Bureau has suggested the deletion of these questions, an omission that has the potential to hurt families.

A notice of the action was issued on Oct. 31, with a deadline for comments from the public set for Dec. 30, 2014. Some have questioned this time frame, noting many Americans could easily miss it amid the busyness of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays.

Despite the fact that these questions are so simple, they are important. In the language of the Census Bureau itself, these questions are asked to "understand marriage trends." They are used to "measure the effects of policies and programs that focus on the well-being of families, including tax policies and financial assistance programs."

This is the only survey in which those who are selected are required by law to participate and do so honestly. This produces information that is important not just for the reasons stated by the Census Bureau but also for sociologists researching the impact of marriage on our society and for businesses that serve and support families.

Beyond this, the term "marriage" is important. We live in a culture in which marriage has been under attack, with opponents attempting to deconstruct it and redefine it. If we allow the term to slip from common usage and be absorbed into the larger category of domestic partnership, life partnership or even sexual partnership, we are conceding ground in the marriage debate. We would be conceding that the concept is not even important enough to differentiate it from other social arrangements. Even with the normalization of same-sex relationships being recognized as "marriage," there is much good that can be done by people, religious or not, who believe that the historic concept of marriage is fundamental to a healthy society.

Most of the governmental agencies with which we interact are administrative agencies empowered by Congress to write regulations that have the full force of law but which are written and enforced by non-elected government agents. If you know much of our history, you know that America was founded from a profound distaste for laws that apply to those without a voice in their crafting. This is why administrative regulations like this are subject to a period of public comment during which time all Americans have the right to submit their concerns, questions and comments to those responsible for making the regulations law. Most of the time this period is unremarkable and unnoticed by citizens and media alike.

Now is a time when we cannot afford this process to go unnoticed. The information that is collected every 10 years determines the apportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and is relied upon by state legislatures as they redraw electoral districts for state elections. Countless other administrative agencies use this information in order to determine the effectiveness of government policy. Even if we do not think often of the Census Bureau, the work that this office does impacts vast swaths of American life.

You have a right to inform the Census Bureau that you believe that the benefits our society derives from having information about marriage are real and important. Join me in writing them to voice your concern and participate in our government in a unique way that few Americans ever do.

The paperwork clearance officer responsible for hearing from Americans is Jennifer Jessup. Her email address is jjessup@doc.gov. Email her, but please keep some things in mind:

-- The issue at hand has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. There is no need to reference your opinion on this issue in your email. Stick to the issue that is before the Census Bureau.

-- Ms. Jessup is not the decision-maker. She is the person at the Census Bureau responsible for collecting public comments and passing them to the decision-makers.

-- Be respectful. Ms. Jessup is serving the American people by doing her work. Thank her for it!

-- If you copy my email to Ms. Jessup, please remember to personalize it by deleting my name and signing your own. If you would like, feel free to copy this format:

Ms. Jessup,

Thank you for your assistance in forwarding this brief email to the proper decision makers in the Department of Commerce. I am writing today to express my concern that the Census Bureau not remove questions 20, 21a-21c, 22, and 23 from the ACS. Marriage is an important institution and in the last several years we have seen this institution decline. Without information specific to marriage gathered on the ACS, we will not be able to track future trends. Other questions on the ACS relate to much less important issues, so the inclusion of these questions does not present an unreasonable burden to those who receive the ACS.

Furthermore, the removal of these questions represents a marginalization of marriage. As an American citizen, I value marriage and I know many others who do as well. Marriage is the core of the family, and as the institution of marriage deteriorates so will the institution of the family. Strong families are the key to a strong society. The benefits of understanding marriage trends and supporting the institution of marriage are important to our nation and to me. I urge the Bureau to leave these questions as a part of all future ACS questionnaires.

I appreciate your help and your service to our nation.


Trey Dimsdale

Fort Worth, Texas

To view to the announcement in the Federal Register, click here.

Trey Dimsdale is associate director for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement.
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