Informal and Formal Kinship Care. Census Classification of Child Living Arrangements

06/20/1997

Another valuable national information source for describing children and their living arrangements is the decennial United States Census. The census provides the most comprehensive enumeration of the American population available, although this information is collected far less frequently than the Current Population Survey and other large sample surveys. The last national census was conducted in April, 1990, so the information it provides is now dated by over 6 years. In using data from the census to describe current patterns it is important to assess the chance that the characteristics and relations being examined have changed since the census was taken. As a rule, small-area data and information related to sectors that can fluctuate rapidly -- like the economy -- are the least likely to maintain short-term stability.

By law, the Census Bureau cannot distribute detailed household-based data as it is collected, as a protection of the people's privacy rights. Most of the publicly available data from the census is produced and distributed in the aggregate form of Summary Tape Files (STF). These extracts contain a broad range of fields, arrays, and cross-tabulations that give counts of population units (persons, families, households, etc.) across pre-defined arrangements of characteristic traits. The STF records are reproduced, in the same format, for many geographic levels and places -- nation, region, state, county, place, minor civil division, tract, block, Metropolitan Statistical Area, etc. The analyst can refer either to relationships between various data tables for one single geographic unit, or obtain similar data from many geographic units to compare variation across and within places.

The STF structure provides a relatively rich data structure concerning children, families, households, and the living arrangements of persons. However, for describing a population as specific as "children living with relatives -- parent not present", the topic of this project, only counts and rudimentary age characteristics are directly available for analysis from these tabulations. To define and describe the context of kinship caregiving, the following distribution of children was developed from the STF tables:

Own-Child with Two Parents Related Child, No Parent Present -- (Kinship Care)
Own-Child with Mother, Father not Present Unrelated Child
Own-Child, with Father, Mother not Present  

 

Care must be taken in interpreting these categories, as they compress a complexity of possible arrangements into a short and mutually exclusive list. For example, the "Own Child, with Mother, Father not Present" category is usually referred to with shorthand terms like "Mother Only," and is usually presumed to contain children in simple single-mother families. What defines this category is that the child's mother is present, and neither the natural father of the child nor a different husband of the mother is present. The household may contain grandparents, other adult relatives, a mother's "partner" or boyfriend, and other persons, but it is defined strictly by child-parent and(step-parent) relations.

Each of these categories is further classified into two age groups, for children ages 0-5 and children ages 6-17. The method for obtaining this categorization from the STF tables is described fully in Appendix 2. Details could be added to extend this classification. Each of the own-child categories can be divided into children in primary nuclear families and children living in parent-child subfamilies within extended households. Unrelated children can also be further divided -- into those living in household settings, those in institutions, and those in noninstitutional group quarters. Unfortunately, no information is available in the STF tables that will allow for more specific classification of the "related children--no parent present" group, which is of greatest interest here.

Two major qualifications regarding the accuracy of counts in these census living arrangement categories should be addressed here. The first is that all census counts are subject to some bias due to the under-enumeration of certain hard-to-locate population groups. Groups known to be systematically undercounted in the census include young adult minority males, homeless persons, resident aliens, and African American infants. Census undercount would affect the living arrangement data most seriously if the unenumerated children have systematically different living patterns than other groups.

The second accuracy issue has more direct substantive bearing. Recognizing the diversity of family and household structures employed by the American public in caring for our children, the census recently developed a very sensitive methodology for finding and properly classifying parent/child subfamilies that live within larger household units. Children in a nuclear family that live in a grandparent's home, for example, would once have been classed only as "relatives" of the household head, but they can now be identified in the more meaningful category of own-children in a "related subfamily.(8) Parent-child subfamilies are also recognized when they are "unrelated subfamilies," i.e. when the subfamily bears no direct kinship relation to the head of the household. However, any children now living in an "adult-relative and child" equivalent of a subfamily are not tracked as carefully. If this type of "kinship subfamily" has no marriage or kinship-based relationship to the defined head of the household where they reside, the children are probably identified by the census as "unrelated" members of those households.

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