Most people have a home, which is the house they live in most of the time, but in relation to statistical data collection it is a bit more complicated: they may not be staying there when a survey comes to call, and visitors may be there instead. The first censuses used to count people where they found them – their ‘de facto residence’ – but now they record the ‘de jure’ or usual residence which creates much more useful statistics.
Official statistics attempt to capture the true experience of people, so when we talk about the gender pay gap we compare the individual earnings of men and women. Looking at the returns to education, say, of studying for a degree, we look at the lifetime earnings of individuals. However, when evaluating deprivation, whether for means tests of welfare benefits or looking at policy on child poverty, it makes sense to take a household focus.
This is because, people share housing and heating costs within the household, so if deprivation means overcrowding or ‘fuel poverty’ that makes sense. Dependants will also share food. However, further complicating the matter, one building can sometimes be home to a number of different households, each renting one room. So it is an important question to ask who is included in a household for the purposes of statistics, and when is a particular house your home?
Many believe that politicians have proved adept at distorting administrative definitions to their own advantage but complex household arrangements are relatively common and a second home can have many forms. Children with separated parents who share custody may split their time evenly between two different family homes. Long distance commuters may have a flat for their working week and a family home that they return to at weekends. Retirees may spend a lump sum on a European villa while retaining a pied a terre back in their native country. Students may be seasonal migrants, with a term time house share or hall of residence and a permanent parental home.
Some people are difficult to pin down to any household, not just because they are homeless. Migrants newly arrived in the country are only classed as resident if they are staying in the country for at least 3 months (or as long as 12 months in some countries). People moving between temporary accommodation e.g. a bail hostel, shelter or detention, means their residence is hard to define. Socially, it can also be difficult to say when a new partner becomes a permanent member of the household.
How do we know if the people living together comprise a whole family? A civil servant at a trailer park asking questions for the 1925 census in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
A more difficult problem is that housing is generally used as the sampling frame when administering a sample survey. People not resident in exactly one household will not be accurately represented in the sample which can be a problem if they are also the people who give rare responses about other circumstances. For this reason, official surveys often spend as much time establishing which people to survey as actually asking questions.
Official statistics have to make sense of all possible living arrangements in order to accurately record the state of the nation. They also identify the state of the housing stock – census is more formally population and housing census. Nobody is the usual resident of a hotel room, a second home, or a rented holiday home but it is useful to record the nature of their use – they cannot be described as vacant or empty housing.
While even official statistics came to terms with some types of non-standard families some years ago, other households need definition. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) recently published a document on new and emerging household types. As well as those mentioned above they discuss same sex couples; couples who cohabit but each maintain their own house; and people who live alone but not independently – being supported by the community. The notion of what a household is can be challenged and altered in many different ways but it is useful to have internationally concordant definitions.
The question in choosing to apply any new definition is whether they are important enough to include. However, policy often relates to households in unusual circumstances and research has shown that some approaches overestimate vulnerable populations. For example single parent households come out as a very different proportion of families if one considers those who have only one usually resident parent as opposed to looking at whether the children are supported by more than one adult.
All of these ideas are very ‘western’, a judgement which is brought into focus when studying poverty in developing countries. There the concept of a household can be fluid and also surprising to foreigners. Labour migration and maternal deaths and remarriage make large and unrelated families more common. One suggestions is to define what is one household and what is several by using the idea of sharing food but this too is culturally significant and may not signify what we mean by a household.
Although the nuclear family of married parents and their children is a useful concept, it is less and less common. More importantly, it is rarely interesting to look at the circumstances of such stable families. Policy is based on addressing deviances from this norm, be they overcrowding, family breakdown, vacant housing, second home ownership or homelessness. So our statistics should be based on more than just who happens to be at home when an interviewer calls or who is registered at a particular address.
In all, we often use households to define support networks or dependants but these are not fixed or uniform across the world. Making international comparisons of poverty may never be possible in an absolute sense, but it will always throw up interesting cultural observations. Any household survey cannot be used for all purposes as the sample of households will relate to the aims of the survey as well as the circumstance of the data collection.
Statistics allow us to see how household structures adapt to cope with deprivation as we have seen a rise in young people returning to their parental home. But the notion of household as a fixed measure of anything needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. A household means different things in different times and cultures, and what the state regards as your home may not be yours.