September 24, 2006


‘1’ is no longer the loneliest number as single households now in majority

By Kelley Kazek
Athens News Courier

When the Rev. Terry Jackson came to Athens nearly 12 years ago, he may as well have had a bull’s-eye over his heart.

The 32-year-old, never-married pastor of Athens Church of God was likely the best target for matchmakers to join the congregation in years.

“When I first got there, I did meet everybody’s unmarried niece,” Jackson says.

Now 44, Jackson said people have given up on the idea of matchmaking and realized what he’s wanted them to all along: He’s happy being single.

But he’s not single by design.

“I had everything planned out — by the time I was 25, I’d be married, have kids, a career, the typical American thing,” he says. “Life just didn’t work out that way…it’s not that I’m opposed to the idea, but right now life is full and I am happy.”

Jackson wants people to understand single people are not outsiders, and now that the number of single-headed households has reached the majority in America, he may get his wish.

Single people (whether never-married, divorced or widowed) now head 50.3 percent of households in the country, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, a 2005 supplement to the 2000 Census.

Alabama is one of 23 states in which single-headed households are the majority. According to the Census supplement, single people head 50.2 percent of Alabama households. Top cities for singles in the state are Birmingham (71.5 percent), Tuscaloosa (65 percent), Mobile (64 percent), Huntsville (58.7 percent) and Montgomery (59.8 percent).

In Limestone County, single people head 44 percent of households.

The upshot is that society and government need to rethink a structure in which married couples receive a larger share of benefits, said Thomas F. Coleman, executive director of the California-based group Unmarried America, which disseminates information on singles trends.

“It made sense to have employment benefits geared toward married couples with children when, in the 1950s, 75 percent of American households consisted of married couples with children at home,” Coleman said. Taxes, employment benefits and even working hours should be reconsidered now that 42 percent of the workforce is single.

“Marriage is a very highly personal matter,” he said. “The government needs to tread very lightly with how it uses marital status to reward or punish people, so to speak. People should be treated more as individuals.”

One: Not the loneliest

The trend of increasing numbers of singles in America can be traced to a wide array of factors, Coleman said, including:

• More choices for women;

• Societal acceptance of cohabitation;

• Divorce rate;

• Societal acceptance of having children out of wedlock;

• Longevity leading to more widowed elderly.

“I think a lot of it started a couple of decades ago with the choices women were making,” Coleman said. “Instead of graduating high school, getting married and raising a family, they made other choices, to go to college and start a career, which meant for many women, delaying marriage.”

In 1970, only 7.8 percent of Americans aged 30 to 34 had never married. By 2003, the number of never-marrieds in that age group was 27.9 percent, according to Unmarried America.

In addition, the stigma against couples living together without marrying has lessened.

“Cohabitation out of wedlock used to be very taboo,” he said. “Now, in addition to the 12 million people cohabitating at any given time, a majority of people who marry now cohabitate first. That causes an increase in the unmarried population.”

Coleman said although the divorce rate has leveled off, it remains stuck at a high level — about half of all marriages end in divorce. One effect of that trend is single parenthood is more common and more acceptable, making it less of a stigma for people who want to have children without marrying.

“More people, some by choice, others by accident, are having children out of wedlock,” he said. “About one-third of all children are born to unmarried parents.”

W. Bradford Wilcox, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia whose research focuses on the affect of religion on family trends, added to Coleman’s list of reasons for an increase in singles: Careers, sex and secularization.

“The sexual revolution is one of the obvious reasons,” he said. “One reason people used to get married was to have sex. Another reason people are putting off marriage is that folks are taking a more hedonistic approach to life; they don’t necessarily see marriage and children as part of a good life. They see it as being tied down, a ball and chain.”

Not just women but men are taking longer to complete educations and start careers, Wilcox said.

“It takes longer for people now to get established in a career, so people are putting off marriage,” Wilcox said.

In addition, fewer people are associated with churches, which promote marriage.

“Secularization has increased in the United States,” he said. “Fourteen percent are unaffiliated with a religion now, compared to four percent in the 1950s.”

Reaching out to singles

The growing single population is largely staying away from churches, Wilcox said.

“Singles are less likely to attend church than are married Americans and that’s particularly true for men as compared to women,” he said. “Men really associate churchgoing with their status as a family man, a married man with kids. If they are not married to the mother of their children, they are much less likely to see themselves in a paternal role conducive toward churchgoing.”

While women are also more likely to go to church if they are married and have children, their attendance is less affected by single status.

“If they are divorced, they may continue going to the congregation they had been prior to the divorce,” he said. “Women who divorce, whether secular or religious, will seek out more intensive experiences. They may turn to evangelical churches to provide moral or social support.”

Wilson said in a national survey conducted by the University of Chicago, 32 percent of men and 39 percent of women who were married with children attended church on a weekly basis; while 15 percent of men and 23 percent of women who are single without children attended.

Churches are hoping to change that trend by reaching out to singles.

“A lot of churches, particularly larger churches, have pretty strong singles ministries offering people everything from advice to cooking classes,” Wilcox said. “Certainly some churches are trying to reach out to people not in a traditional family structure, but small churches are not doing a lot.”

For some, church is a place to meet a mate.

“Some religious and/or marriage-minded singles go to church precisely to meet people,” Wilcox said. “Other folks are looking to meet people at bars or clubs or through friends. People are more likely to have successful courtship with people they meet in church compared to people meet in bars or clubs.”

While Terry Jackson doesn’t believe churches should be used as dating services, his staff at Athens Church of God is reaching out to singles. The church started a Sunday school class called Single Adult Fellowship Education. Currently, all ages of singles attend, whether never married, divorced or widowed, but Jackson hopes to break into specialized groups to meet more specific needs as the program grows.

Though many churches have started singles programs, Jackson said some congregations still treat singles as “pariahs.”

“Because we have single people in leadership (at Athens Church of God), I think singles feel comfortable and less pressured at our church,” he said.

In the singles Sunday school class, topics of discussion are broad enough for all age ranges and living situations. “They mostly talk about issues important to singles regardless of whether they are single by choice, by divorce or through death because a lot of us share the same issues and concerns as single people living alone,” Jackson said.

The first topic is self esteem “because single people are kind of pushed to the outside and do feel like they are less than fully human in some ways,” Jackson said. “I don’t think churches always meet their needs.”

The goal of churches, he said, should be to create family.

“Especially if they come to the area and have no family ties, we have to create family for them,” he said. “Sometimes they create a family stronger than the family you’re born in.”

Jackson said a verse in 1 Corinthians refers to being single as a gift. Single people have more time to serve God, he said.

He hopes others will soon realize that “our martial state neither adds nor subtracts from our value as people.”