Data sets are our friends

mathematicsDahlia Lithwick, an intrepid senior editor for Slate, has a piece up (a version of which also ran in the Washington Post yesterday) that makes the case for gay marriage and laws protecting gay parents. Reporters frequently cover gay marriage issues, but gay parenting rights are also in need of thoughtful analysis (the links below are to PDF files):

A heads-up to those of you still fretting about the alleged evils of gay marriage: The parade has moved on. Try as you may to vote or legislate your way out of a country that solemnizes such relationships, committed gay couples are already giving birth to, adopting, and fostering children. Whether or not same-sex marriage becomes widely legal in America, same-sex parenting is a done deal. . . .

According to the 2000 census, 34 percent of female same-sex households and 22 percent of male ones include children. Good data are extremely hard to obtain here, but the Lambda Legal Defense Fund estimates that 6 million to 10 million gay parents are caring for 6 million to 14 million children in this country.

And that does seem very decisive. One of my close gay friends is in a relationship in which he helps care for his partner's children every other weekend. Another friend and former colleague moved with his partner to Ohio to be near his offspring. In both cases the men with children were previously married and seem to be very loving fathers. In neither case do the men serve as primary caregivers. But the data made me pause because the vast, vast majority of gay men and women I know who have absolutely no children in their lives. It could be that I know an extremely non-representative sample of gays, but let's look deeper at the data.

There are only 78.1 million children under the age of 18, according to 2000 census data. Even though reliable data suggest the percentage is much smaller, let's be generous and say that 5 percent of the United States population is gay. Does it really make sense that 5 percent of the population is caring for up to 18 percent of the children?

The census data that Lithwick links to says:

A reflection of changing life styles is mirrored in Census 2000's enumeration of 5.5 million couples who were living together but who were not married, up from 3.2 million in 1990. These unmarried-partner households were self identified on the census form as being maintained by people who were sharing living quarters and who also had a close personal relationship with each other. The majority of these unmarried-partner households had partners of the opposite sex (4.9 million) but about 1 in 9 (594,000) had partners of the same sex. Of these same-sex unmarried-partner households, 301,000 had male partners and 293,000 had female partners.

mathbookOkay, so if 22 percent of male-male households have children, that's 66,220 male gay couples with children they care for. And if 34 percent of female-female households have children, that's 99,620 female couples that have children they care for. Same-sex households that aren't gay are also included here, I should note, but let's just leave that out of the equation.

So if gay couples are caring for up to 14 million children, as Lathwick states, that means that the 165,840 gay households with children in America care for an average of 36 to 84 kids.

Now perhaps she meant to include gay households such as the ones I mentioned earlier -- which would completely change her argument since her point is "Try as you may to vote or legislate your way out of a country that solemnizes such relationships, committed gay couples are already giving birth to, adopting, and fostering children." Also, from both a judicial and social analysis standpoint, caring for children and caring for children occasionally are two very different things.

Anyway, perhaps it is true that the average gay household with children includes 84 kids under the age of 18. Or, perhaps, Lithwick got a bit overzealous in her attempt to make a point.

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