The Statistics of Valentine’s Day: Measuring Relationships with Census Data

It’s February. With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, we’re matching up a sentimental holiday with statistical rationality to address the following question: can we determine, by numbers or percentages, an accurate, basic relationship status breakdown in Champaign County?

The short answer is yes and no. There is data on marital status and household type available from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which gets us some of the information we’re looking for. However, the categories that this data is broken down into are highly detailed in some respects, but not at all detailed in others, making it difficult to arrive at a concrete answer.

Marital Status – Categories and Limitations

The American Community Survey includes questions on respondents’ marital status, and offers five response options: “Now married (except separated),” “Widowed,” “Divorced,” “Separated,” and “Never married.” For the purpose of our discussion, we’ll refer to the first four categories as the “marriage and post-marriage” categories.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Table S1201; generated by CCRPC staff; using American FactFinder; (7 February 2017).

This table offers a very detailed and useful breakdown for answering questions about populations who are married, or who have been married and are now in one of the three post-marriage categories (“Widowed,” “Divorced,” and “Separated”).

It does bear keeping in mind that the American Community Survey is a point-in-time study, with respondents selecting the option that best reflects their marital status at the time of their response. This means that we can’t interpret the four marriage and post-marriage categories as mutually exclusive – an individual who is “now married” may not be on his or her first marriage, meaning that he or she may also have been widowed, divorced, or separated at some point in the past. However, for anyone concerned with present marital status of individuals who are or have been married, the marriage and post-marriage categories provide sound and helpful data.

It’s the monolithic “Never married” category where this level of detail starts to break down – because we can’t interpret “never married” as “single.” Some of the 46.4% of the surveyed population who have never been married may be in a relationship, but based on these categories, we can draw no sound conclusions about what that percentage might be.

Households and Families – Categories and Limitations

Another table, Households and Families, can shed a little light on this question, but also does not provide an easy breakdown into categories of “single” and “not single.” It uses a few categories that cover family households, broken down into households made up of married couples and householders with no spouse present, as well as a category for non-family households (U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2011-2015 American Community Survey, Table S1101). Households made up of married couples can be assumed to correspond pretty strongly to the “Now married (except separated)” category of the Marital Status table, while householders with no spouse present could fall into any of the Marital Status categories other than “Now married (except separated).” This table adds no detail, and in fact can confuse the conversation, when discussing the marriage and post-marriage categories of the first table.

Where this table does add some detail is to that “Never married” group identified in the Marital Status table, because it includes lines for “Unmarried-partner households.” While we can’t directly compare these two tables, because the Marital Status table surveys individuals while the Households and Families table surveys households, this at least provides a little information on the population who are in a relationship, but are not married.

But even this brings up caveats and limitations. Some householders of “Unmarried-partner households” may fall into the “Never married” marital status category, but others may be “Widowed,” “Divorced,” or “Separated,” per the categories of the Marital Status table, and cohabitating with a partner they are not married to. As we saw, the Marital Status table calls for the respondent’s present status, and “Dating” and “Cohabitating” aren’t options (and forestalling an even more complex analytical nightmare, neither is “It’s Complicated”). Furthermore, while the “Unmarried-partner households” category provides some help in measuring non-married relationships, it offers no information on relationships where the individuals are neither married nor cohabitating.

Given the available Census data on the topic, we can’t arrive at a comprehensive categorization of “single” or “not single” – the categories of the data available don’t line up in a way that’s conducive to that much simplification. So 750 words later, we’re forced to revise our short answer: “almost, but actually no.”

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