In a move that reflects the changing definition of the American family, the Census Bureau for the first time will attempt in its 1990 population survey to count the number of people who consider themselves "unmarried partners."
The new designation will be added to such traditional categories as "single," "married," "roommate" and "boarder," Donald Hernandez, chief of the bureau's marriage and family statistics branch, said in an interview Wednesday.
The new category will give government officials--as well as policy makers, marketers and others who rely on census data--a better handle on the number of unmarried couples in committed relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual.
"This is an important milestone," said David Link, a member of the city Task Force on Family Diversity in Los Angeles. "It marks the first step by the federal government toward recognizing the concept of domestic partnership."
Hernandez said the main purpose of the new category is to identify unmarried persons of the opposite sex.
"We already know that half of the people who get married today were living as unmarried partners before they got married," he said. "It's a major change in the family formation process, and it's important that we get a handle on this group. As a byproduct, we will also be able to identify unmarried partners of the same sex."
An accurate count of unmarried couples is important because many public and private initiatives are launched on the basis of census data. For example, the number of unmarried partners will probably be seized upon by both advocates and opponents of local "domestic partnership" ordinances.
That in turn could affect the growing debate on whether to grant such spousal benefits as health insurance coverage, hospital visitation rights and bereavement leaves to unmarried partners.
The "unmarried partner" designation on the census questionnaire reflects the growing acceptance of the concept of family diversity. A poll last fall by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. found that only 22% of those surveyed defined families in a legalistic way as "a group related by blood, marriage or adoption."
In contrast, 74% defined the family in more emotional terms, such as "a group who love and care for each other."
A Time Magazine/Cable News Network poll last November found that, by a margin of 54% to 37%, Americans thought that homosexual couples should be permitted to receive medical and life-insurance benefits from a partner's policy. However, they opposed the concept of homosexual marriage by 69% to 23%.
Gary L. Bauer, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, a conservative think tank that aims to preserve the "traditional" family, said: "While we are troubled by the phenomenon of unmarried couples living together in a sexual relationship, that does not mean we are vehemently opposed to learning how many people are engaged in such a life style."
Bauer, a White House domestic policy aide during the Reagan Administration, added that "it might be useful to see the figures because they may in fact show a lot fewer people in such relationships than is commonly believed."
In a rough calculation based on a 1988 population survey, census officials last year estimated that of the nation's 91 million households, 2.6 million are made up of unmarried couples of the opposite sex, while 1.6 million involve unmarried couples of the same sex.
Ivy Young, director of the Families Project of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, applauded the inclusion of the new category, but she criticized the Census Bureau for failing to alert affected groups that the question exists or to explain what "unmarried partner" means.
"There has been no outreach effort, no community education, no discussion with lesbian and gay activists about how to best ensure that the question is understood and answered accurately," she said. On the other hand, the bureau has developed outreach programs for such undercounted groups as blacks, Latinos, the homeless and illegal immigrants.
Moreover, Young added, "fear and apprehension" of government intrusion among gay men and lesbians--unless countered by explicit promises of confidentiality--"could lead to a serious undercount of same-sex couples."