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Statistical Definition of ‘Family’ Unchanged Since 1930

January 28, 2015
David Pemberton

What is the Census Bureau’s definition of “family”?

Printed decennial census reports from 1930 to the present are consistent in their definition of “family.” The 2010 version states: “A family consists of a householder and one or more other people living in the same household who are related to the householder by birth, marriage or adoption.”

The 1930 version is strikingly similar: “Persons related in any way to the head of the family by blood, marriage or adoption are counted as members of the family.”

But prior to 1930, the definition of a family was quite different.

The 1920 version went like this: “The term ‘family’ as here used signifies a group of persons, whether related by blood or not, who live together as one household, usually sharing the same table. One person living alone is counted as a family, and, on the other hand, the occupants or inmates of a hotel or institution, however numerous, are treated as a single family.”

The 1900 Census announced: “The word family has a much wider application, as used for census purposes, than it has in ordinary speech. As a census term, it may stand for a group of individuals who occupy jointly a dwelling place or part of a dwelling place or for an individual living alone in any place of abode. All the occupants and employees of a hotel, if they regularly sleep there, make up a single family, because they occupy one dwelling place …”

The older definition is closer to the current use of the term “household.”

Enumerator instructions beginning in at least 1860 and extending at least through 1940 emphasize this older definition of family.

Here is an example from the 1860 instructions: “By the term ‘family’ is meant either one person living separately and alone in a house, or a part of a house, and providing for him or herself, or several persons living together in a house, or part of a house, upon one common means of support and separately from others in similar circumstances. A widow living alone and separately providing for herself, or 200 individuals living together and provided for by a common head, should each be numbered as one family.”

The 1870 instructions add the element of eating together as one defining element of a family: “Under whatever circumstances, and in whatever numbers, people live together under one roof, and are provided for at a common table, there is a family in the meaning of the law.”

By 1930, the concept of a “household” had become more important and by implication was separated from the term “family”: “A household for census purposes is a family or any other group of persons, whether or not related by blood or marriage, living together with common housekeeping arrangements in the same living quarters.”

In 1960, the concepts of household and family were even more clearly delineated: “A household consists of a group of people who sleep in the same dwelling unit and usually have common arrangements for the preparation and consumption of food. Most households consist of a related family group. In some cases, you may find three generations represented in one household. Some household members may have no family relationship to the central group — boarders and servants, for example — but they should be included with the household if they eat and sleep in the same dwelling unit.”

In summary, the definition of family before 1930 was more similar to today’s definition of household. However, since 1930, the definition of family has remained the same, and includes those who are related to the householder by birth, marriage, or adoption.

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