Friday, October 17, 2003

 

 

Say goodbye to the traditional family

 

 



An article published today by the Business Weekly reports that the U.S. Census Bureau's newest numbers show that married-couple households -- the dominant cohort since the country's founding -- have slipped from nearly 80% in the 1950s to just 50.7% today. That means that the U.S.'s 86 million single adults could soon define the new majority. Already, unmarrieds Americans make up 42% of the workforce, 40% of home buyers, 35% of voters.

What many once thought of as the fringe is becoming the new normal. Families consisting of breadwinner dads and stay-at-home moms now account for just one-tenth of all households. Married couples with kids, which made up nearly every residence a century ago, now total just 25% -- with the number projected to drop to 20% by 2010, says the Census Bureau. By then, nearly 30% of homes will be inhabited by someone who lives alone.

This unprecedented demographic shift holds vast implications for everything from Corporate America to the culture wars; from government institutions to the legal system. Vast swaths of our social infrastructure are still modeled on the days when our realities were reflected in Leave It to Beaver, not Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Corporate benefits, pensions, taxes, Social Security, educational funding -- all were designed in the last century to favor and encourage marital unions. "There's this pervasive idea in America that puts marriage and family at the center of everyone's lives," says Bella M. DePaulo, visiting professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, "when in fact it's becoming less and less so."

"It does seem unfair to me that there are single people in our exact same situation who pay more than we do in taxes," says Scott Houser, a tax-code expert and economics professor at California State University at Fresno." Fixing the marriage penalty is just going to make the single penalties worse."

Indeed, the elements are in place for a new form of social warfare. That's because what's occurring is a wealth transfer to the married class, which imposes an array of unseen taxes on singles -- no matter how many people they care for or are dependent on them.

In the workplace, unmarried people wind up making an average 25% less than married colleagues for the same work because of the marriage-centric structure of health care, retirement, and other benefits, calculates Thomas F. Coleman, a lawyer who heads the Los Angeles-based American Association for Single People.

In the civic arena, rising school taxes and growing inequities in pensions between marrieds and singles represent a big bonus for legal couples. The unmarried are often subjected to discrimination in housing and credit applications. They pay more for auto and homeowners' insurance and are shut out of valuable discounts on gyms, country clubs, hotel rooms -- even football-ticket lotteries. In some states, unmarried people, perhaps laid off from jobs and scrounging to pay their bills, are barred from taking on roommates to help pay the rent.

As the reality of unmarried America sinks in, CEOs, politicians, and judges will be challenged to design benefits, structure taxes, and develop retirement models that more fairly match the changing population. Already in Corporate America, more than 40% of the 500 largest companies have started to revise their marriage-centric policies, reexamining everything from subsidized spousal health care to family Christmas parties. Companies such as Merrill Lynch & Co.  and Bank of America have have begun to accommodate the shift by instituting "extended family benefits."
These plans allow employees to add a qualified adult household member to their health plans -- be it a domestic partner, extended family member, or grown child.

These kinds of changes could lead to more European-style systems that de-link marital status from eligibility for social benefits. Already, a bill is pending in Congress that would make benefits for household members and domestic partners tax-free, just as they are for spouses. Another would mandate that the federal government offer health benefits to domestic partners; in the past few years, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Seattle, among other cities, have also passed laws obligating companies doing municipal business to do so.

The tensions between traditional families and the new households are already starting to spill out all over society -- in offices, neighborhoods, and political campaigns. Pollsters Celinda Lake and Ed Goeas say the marriage gap could become an issue in the 2004 Presidential campaign since George W. Bush draws so much of his support from the wedded, who give him approval ratings 15 percentage points higher than the single or divorced. Meanwhile, the numbers of Democratic-favoring singles continues to grow in number and power. There are also rumblings of a political backlash as nontraditional families balk at lopsided tax burdens. Dual-income, kid-free cohabitants, and elderly retirees on fixed incomes, for example, are joining forces to oppose school bond issues, a growing argument now that only 20% of the electorate has children.

Pensions also certainly come with big penalties for singles. If a married worker dies before starting to receive the benefits, a surviving spouse can inherit them. For singles, they go back into the pot. April Murphy, an unmarried 38-year-old who has worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines Inc. for 11 years, found this out when she tried to name her sister as her designate on her traditional pension. The company told her that was fine. But if Murphy dies even one day before her retirement, her sister won't see a penny. "When I'm pushing a beverage cart, the flight attendant on the other end is getting more just because she has a spouse or child or two," says Murphy. "How can you compensate one employee more than the other?" Murphy was also stunned to learn that she had no legal recourse: Federal anti-discrimination laws protect just about every class -- race, religion, gender, age -- except the unmarried.

Since 1970, the ranks of the never-married and the childless have surged astronomically, according to the Census Bureau. There is also a creeping disconnect between marriage and child-rearing, with an 850% increase since 1960 in the number of unmarried couples living with kids. As for children, 40% of them will live with their mom and her boyfriend before they turn 16, according to the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.

Certainly, there are scores of reasons to encourage marriage. Social research suggests that it is one of the republic's great stabilizers. Living with two happily married parents is the best shot a kid has for a successful launch in life. Marriage attaches fathers to children and protects adolescents from the scourges of addiction, suicide, teen pregnancy, and crime. Matrimony also offers families a layer of economic protection in an era when demands for individual competence and educational achievement have never been greater; when even members of the middle-class face slippery job security, diminishing benefits, and bidding wars for houses in the ever-dwindling number of good school districts.

But just because matrimony is good for society doesn't mean that outmoded social benefits are -- especially when so many kids are not living in the kinds of traditional households that current social policies favor. As more and more companies begin to loosen the connection between benefits and marriage -- and partners who act like they are married are treated as if they are -- it's likely that there may be even higher rates of cohabitation and even lower rates of marriage, as has already happened in Europe. The difference, though, is that European countries have stronger social safety nets in the form of long, subsidized maternity leave policies; good part-time jobs for mothers; and tight-knit extended families, who help care for children born to single parents.

In America, the debate over the relative prominence of unmarrieds and marrieds is likely to grow more complex and caustic as the tipping point nears. Some say that the country is sliding down a slippery slope, gutting one of the last social safety nets that exists. Critics warn of an atomized society of subgroups, each vying for its selfish interests, with children the ultimate victims. But others say that given the demographic trends, what's needed isn't a nostalgia for the past but a rethinking of our notions of relationships, parenting, and family. No matter how the politics play out, the demographic convulsion is certain to cause a collective reexamination of what it means to be full-fledged members of society. No matter if you think that's for better or worse, husbands and wives no longer have a monopoly on that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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