How Well Do National Surveys Measure Hispanic Families and Households?

Research BriefFamiliesJun 20 2018

National surveys provide important information about the United States population. Researchers, policymakers, program developers, and government officials use data from these surveys to describe the characteristics of the population, study patterns of behavior and how they differ for subgroups of individuals, make decisions about how to allocate resources, and inform programs and policies. As a result, it is critical to maintain a data infrastructure that reflects the current U.S. population.

The United States is increasingly becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, and Hispanics are, in many respects, leading many of the shifts in the population. The Hispanic population has not only grown rapidly over the past few decades, but has diversified in terms of nativity, country of origin, citizenship status, and geographic location within the United States. As the U.S. Hispanic population continues to diversify and comprise an increasing proportion of the general population, data are needed to understand what Latinoa  families and households look like, how their family life is organized, how Hispanic couples interact with one another, how they parent their children, and how their experiences differ (if at all) from other racial/ethnic groups and within Latino subgroups. This information is necessary to identify the strengths and needs of the Hispanic population today, and to inform the design of culturally relevant policies and programs. However, the ability to do so is contingent on the availability of current data on this population.

This brief examines the capacity of our nation’s data infrastructure to measure, describe, and understand the structure, diversity, complexity, and dynamics of Hispanic family life. We reviewed more than 20 mostly national surveys with large Latino sample sizes to assess the extent to which they include measures critical to understanding the characteristics and experiences of Hispanic families and households. We specifically examined the extent to which these surveys collect information about family and household composition, family formation and stability, relationship dynamics, and parenting and co-parenting. We selected these domains based on their relevance to Hispanic family life and their importance in predicting children’s outcomes.

As the Hispanic population diversifies, it has become increasingly important to measure and describe the varied experiences within Hispanic families. For this reason, we also assessed the extent to which data sets include information that can characterize the heterogeneity of Hispanic families. We searched for the availability of 10 key data elements identified by a Hispanic Research Work Group Group convened by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) as those that are central to understanding the diverse social experiences of low-income Hispanic populations in the United States. Our review is intended to serve as a resource for researchers interested in studying Hispanic family life and those interested in identifying data sets that can inform policies and programs specifically designed for Latinos. The scan can also inform future data collection efforts.

Key Findings

The capacity of our nation’s current data infrastructure to describe the characteristics and experiences of Latino families and households is limited. On the one hand, large-scale and national surveys are collecting the needed information to count and describe the types of families and households in which Hispanic children and adults live. Additionally, several surveys provide at least some information to understand how Hispanic families are formed and how stable they are. However, our data infrastructure provides less information about what happens inside the Latino family, and is limited in its ability to describe the diversity within Latino communities.

Although many surveys capture some (albeit limited) information about parenting, few, for example, collect information on family functioning and processes that include couples’ relationship quality, co-parenting, and fathers’ involvement with children—restricting our ability to understand family processes among Latinos. More specifically, we found that:

  • Data are available to adequately describe the structure of Hispanic families and households.
    • All surveys reviewed here contain information about the number of individuals, adults, and children in the household; most contain at least partial information about how individuals are related to one another— information that is critical to determining household and family composition.
    • Additionally, most surveys include questions about how families are formed, and many ask about stability over time. For all data sets, we can determine whether individuals are currently married and, often, their marital and cohabitation history, as well as family and relationship changes over time.
  • Our nation’s data infrastructure has not kept up with the demographic shifts in the country.
    • The majority of surveys reviewed are longitudinal, providing a valuable opportunity to understand changes in family life and how they shape adult and child well-being over time.
    • However, the sampling frame of most longitudinal data sets does not adequately represent the current demographic composition of the country in general, and the Hispanic population specifically. Due to the nature of longitudinal studies, the sampling frame of most longitudinal data sets included in our review is at least a decade old, and about half is at least 15 years old. Therefore, these data miss much of the recent growth in, and diversification of, the Latino population.
  • There is a dearth of information on relationship dynamics among Hispanic couples.
    • The majority of surveys contained no information about couples’ relationship quality.
    • Notably, relationship conflict was the most commonly examined dimension of couples’ relationship quality, yet only six surveys included questions about this aspect of couple relationships. Only two surveys measured multiple aspects of relationship dynamics extensively; however, these surveys include samples that may not be representative of all Hispanic families.
  • Additionally, our knowledge of parenting behaviors—and fathering, in particular—among Latino families is limited.
    • Most surveys collect at least some information on parenting, but information is often minimal and restricted to the responding parent, which is usually the mother. Consequently, limited information is available about the father.
    • Moreover, there is limited information about co-parenting in two-parent families. Questions about how co-resident parents come together in their parenting role are rarely included in surveys.
  • No survey allows us to get a complete picture of Hispanic diversity and family life.
    • Most surveys contain at least some information on five or more key data elements needed to unpack Hispanic diversity, but none has complete information on all 10 elements.
    • Notably, most data sets allow for comparisons between foreign-born and U.S.-born Hispanics, and most contain information on basic indicators of acculturation (specifically, time spent in the United States and language spoken at home).
    • However, limitations in the availability of information on Hispanic diversity, coupled with insufficient information about family life, hinder our ability to adequately describe Hispanic families and the diversity in their experiences.


Overall, based on our review, limitations in the sampling frame of existing large data sets—together with the lack of sufficient information about what occurs inside the home—signal a need for a new national survey of families and households. To adequately assess existing gaps in knowledge, this survey should:

  • Assemble a new population-based cohort that captures the current demographic composition of the United States
  • Obtain more granular demographic information that can help unpack the diversity within Hispanic families—namely, the 10 key data elements
  • Inquire about couple dynamics, parenting, and co-parenting from both parents’ perspectives, regardless of residential status
  • Collect data across multiple points in time to allow for examinations of change over time