Fifteen percent and 22 percent: These are estimated rates of white and black Americans born in 2010 who will not ever marry by age 85. These numbers, though, are not (so far) warranting a national reconsideration of the way that we treat unmarried people–socially or legally. As demonstrated by several recent editorials, the benefits to inclusivity for unmarried people would extend well beyond the large group of people who are unable to enjoy the many legal benefits of marriage. In February, three Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) scholars showed the variety of ways that everyone—married and unmarried alike—will benefit from a reconsideration of the place of the unmarried in America.
Stephanie Coontz, CCF Director of Research and Public Education, gave a demographic update showing that an increasing number of people will be harmed if our current social policies regarding unmarried individuals do not change. An estimated 25 percent of today’s young people will remain unmarried until their 40s, and perhaps 40 percent of those currently married will divorce, leading to the question, “Single or married: Does it really matter anymore?” Because a significant portion of this large group of singles will eventually marry, there are fewer differences between those who are married and those who are single.
Bella DePaulo, CCF expert and Project Scientist at UC Santa Barbara, wrote that, “Everything you think you know about single people is wrong.” In reviewing many of the negative stereotypes that work to legitimize a system that privileges married over single living, DePaulo reminded readers that singles are often the ones picking up the slack in their various communities—they are more likely to help family, friends, and neighbors, and are more likely to “value meaningful work.” And by many measures, single people are just as well off as those who are married.
Donna L. Franklin, past co-chair of CCF, and Angela D. James, CCF expert, discussed the negative repercussions for everyone when the specter of the single takes a front seat to bigger public policy issues. Fifty years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan talked about the supposed “tangle of pathology” that was black (single mother) family life, and these negative stereotypes still hold. Today, amid poverty and police brutality, encouraging black women to marry is a top priority for policy makers. Franklin and James asserted that “Black families matter,” and recommended social policy responses that benefit the growing number of single mother families by addressing the real structural inequalities facing black families.
Combined, these perspectives converge on the idea that providing singles and their families with the rights that offer parity with other family structures—especially married families—will benefit all of us.