Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

August 21,  2006  



Drum roll: new ‘unmarried majority’ takes center stage

By Thomas F. Coleman


For the first time ever, married couples have lost their status as the dominant household type in the United States.  New Census data shows that households headed by unmarried Americans have become the new majority.

Results of the American Community Survey, which questioned occupants of 3 million American households in 2005, revealed that unmarried adults headed up 50.3 percent of the nation’s housing units last year while married couples occupied 49.7 percent. 

When the results of the survey were released on August 15, the media focused their stories on patterns of racial and ethnic diversity evident in the new data.  No mention was made of the new unmarried majority.

Unmarried households include a variety of living arrangements, such as people who live alone, single parent households, unmarried partners, roommates, and adult blood relatives sharing living quarters.

Married-couple households have been losing statistical ground for decades.  They occupied 78 percent of the nation’s households in 1950, 60 percent in 1980, and 52.8 percent in 2000.

The transformation of unmarried households from a minority to a majority started in New York when, in 1990, it became the first state to undergo such a change.   By 2004, there were 17 unmarried majority states.  There was a sharp increase to 23 such states in 2005.

In a cover story published in October 2003, aptly entitled “Unmarried America,” BusinessWeek Magazine predicted the emergence of an unmarried majority and examined the implications for American society.  The story suggested that workplace policies, business practices, and government programs would need reevaluation since so much has been premised on a married-majority model.

The BusinessWeek story contained a sidebar entitled “The Unmarried Penalty.”  It summarized areas in which unmarried Americans experience disadvantages, including: fewer job benefits, higher unemployment, lower pay, higher taxes, lower social security and unemployment benefits, fewer estate tax breaks, and higher auto insurance rates. 

Unmarried Americans are currently engaged in litigation to challenge restrictive zoning laws limiting their right to live together in residential areas in some cities.  Court cases are also pending to invalidate criminal laws against unmarried cohabitation.

The good news is that favorable changes for single people are beginning to occur in some states. 

Expanded health care programs in New York, Massachusetts, and Maine are moving more unmarried Americans from the status of uninsured to insured.  New laws in New Mexico and Colorado require employers to keep unmarried adult children on a parent’s health plan to the age of 26 and in New Jersey to the age of 30.  Although workers must pay a premium for this coverage, it will give more unmarried adults access to vital health care services.

Equal rights laws at the state and local levels of government are being expanded to protect more unmarried people from discrimination.  Several cities have passed laws requiring some businesses to provide the same employment benefits to domestic partners that they give to married couples.  Last year, California added the term “marital status” to its Unruh Civil Rights Act, a law that prohibits discriminatory business practices against consumers. 

Supreme Courts in Virginia and Georgia have issued opinions recognizing the right of sexual privacy of unmarried consenting adults.

Despite these modest gains, most unmarried workers and many unmarried consumers are faced with unfair business practices.  But they lack legal protection to fight “marital status” discrimination in half of the states. 

Even though funds collected from unmarried taxpayers are used to support the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, none of these agencies has jurisdiction to investigate or remedy “marital status” discrimination. 

It is strange that the civil rights of a majority of American households are not protected under federal law.  It is even stranger that the media has not uttered or written one word about the emergence of a new unmarried majority.

Politicians are affected by public opinion, public opinion is shaped in large measure by the media, and the media usually feeds on controversial or newsworthy events.  Well, the release of Census data putting a new unmarried majority in center stage of American demographics is certainly newsworthy, and in many places will be controversial.

So let the newspaper reporters start writing stories.  Let the talk radio show hosts start squawking. 

Why all the silence about Unmarried America?

© Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.