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Stepfamilies To Uncle Sam: Learn To Count!

Posted: 12/01/09 03:58 PM ET

We're hearing a lot about the new U.S. Census these days and many might wonder what, precisely, is at stake. For stepfamilies, the answer is: quite a bit. Experts project they will outnumber first families by 2011 if they don't already. And the divorce rate in a remarriage with children is as high as 72 percent. But because the current Census is as backward as the last one when it comes to stepfamilies, we won't even have a basic sense of how many there are in the U.S. any time soon--or how to help them stay together.

This time around, the Census is once again equating "family" with "household." Translation: you don't count as a stepfamily unless the child in question lives with you "most of the time." If your step/child lives with you 50% of the time or less, you're not a "real" stepfamily.

Stepparents and the experts who serve them have reason to be seriously disappointed.

After all, research efforts and research dollars follow the Census numbers. Stepfamily experts are basically backed into a corner by the findings: their best shot at getting funded is to study the most "common" stepfamily form. And when you count them as the U.S. Census does, you miss most of the stepmother families. Mom still tends to get custody after divorce. Kids live with her, she remarries, and an "official" stepfamily is born.

Thus stepmother families are continually labeled as "rare"--and, in turn, "not as important to study and understand, since there aren't as many of them" Newsflash: there are likely millions more stepmother families than the Census will indicate.

In first families, residency is relatively stable and the "family = household" equation makes some sense. But in stepfamilies, residency is fluid and dynamic, and this is another way the Census gets it all wrong. A mother might decide that her child can go live with dad and stepmom for a time, for example, but because giving up custody is so stigmatizing for women, she attaches a condition: I keep official custody.

And so many women who think they're going to be non-residential, part-time stepmoms end up full-time residential stepmoms. How many, exactly? We don't know--and won't anytime soon.

How about African American and Latino stepfamilies? Turns out that, due to rigid U.S. Census criteria, they too will be undercounted. Over a decade ago, Larry Bumpass Ph.D. and his colleagues at the Center for Ecology and Demography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison found a disproportionate number of African American couples with kids from previous relationships cohabiting versus marrying--mostly owing to economic barriers to marriage and disproportionate numbers of minorities living below the poverty level. If you live together but aren't married, you don't count as an official stepfamily.

Meaning there are millions more African American stepfamilies out there than have been counted, and the specific challenges they face are going unconsidered.

For example, sociologists have long known that African American families tend to have stronger inter-generational ties, and are more likely to live in extended-family situations, than white families. Some studies suggest it is harder for African American women to become stepmothers owing to the involvement of the children's mother's extended family; other research has found that it might be easier. The Census will undermine our ability to fund research to sort through such contradictory findings--and support such families.

Stepfatherhood among African American families is another under-considered but crucial topic for sociologists, psychologists and demographers to understand. It seems that in many African American families, "daddy" is a title that men earn through loving behavior and emotional investment, while "father" is a title conferred by blood relation. There is much for us to learn from such distinctions as we attempt to understand, educate, and support divorced fathers in general. Accurate numbers would help researchers figure it out--and assist all divorced dads based on research rather than speculation.

Latino stepfamilies are undercounted owing to linguistic and cultural barriers. Divorce (and remarriage) have been illegal in many Latin American countries (including Brazil and Chile) until just a few years ago. And so such families may tell Census workers that a stepmother is a "mother," fearing stigma, judgment, even legal repercussions. Until Census workers are trained to understand such cultural differences and probe for actual family make-up, our numbers will be skewed, our research dollars will be mis-directed--and stepfamilies will remain misrepresented.

As for gay stepfamilies--this information will be a long time coming. With gay marriage so contested, our ability to collect information about the adjustment process and dynamics of gay stepfamilies will lag considerably. Once again, this will leave stepmothers and stepfathers--whether they are gay or straight--with less information about what works, and what doesn't.

Until the U.S. government learns to count, stepfamilies won't be counted, studied, or supported in ways they desperately need.