Friday, October 17, 2003
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
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
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.
Comments and Suggestions