What Unmarried Americans Want


Recently, I posted this question at the Facebook pages for Unmarried Equality and the Community of Single People:

“If you could change just one law or policy to make things better for unmarried/single Americans, what would it be?”

I would like to say that the question is particularly important because of election season, but unfortunately, the issues have not had the role they should have in the 2016 campaign. And, with few exceptions, the significance of unmarried American as voters has been largely neglected (unlike, say, in 2004).

The question, though, is an evergreen – relevant in every season, not just during elections. As soon as I posted it, all sorts of thoughtful responses were contributed. I’ll share many of them here, along with reminders that (1) the responses are not from a systematic sampling of unmarried Americans, just the opinions of the people on Facebook who decided to participate; and (2) these are not the official positions of Unmarried Equality.

The dominant theme in the responses was that unmarried people should have the same benefits and protections as married people. In the domain of federal laws, issues relevant to taxes, Social Security, health and health care were raised repeatedly. Unconditional basic income was also endorsed. Fairness issues in the marketplace and the workplace were described. Although parental status can be a separate issue from marital status (many unmarried adults have children and many married adults do not), issues involving children came up, too, so I will mention a few of those. Finally, some people went beyond matters of laws and policies and brought up issues of perceptions and practices in everyday life. Those matters deserve a separate article, but I will acknowledge a few of the points that were raised here.

Unmarried People Should Have the Same Benefits and Protections as Married People

More than 1,000 laws benefit and protect only those people who are legally married – and that’s just at the federal level. Those who worked so hard for the legalization of same-sex marriage were motivated in part by the quest for access to those benefits and protections. Their victory did not help unmarried Americans, who remain second class citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation or identity.

Several remedies were suggested. One possibility is that single people should be able to select someone to receive or give the same benefits and protections already accorded to a spouse. Another is to get government out of the marriage business. Marital status would no longer be a criterion for eligibility for perks and protections. Fundamental benefits and protections would be extended to all citizens, not just married ones. Church and state would be separated, as they are supposed to be.

Several people suggested that we need an Unmarried Equality Act. “Give protected class status to unmarried people. By this I mean, if we are discriminated against in any realm– housing, wages, insurance– whether unconscious or consciously, we can get relief and protection through the legal system.”

Here are some specific examples of inequities in laws and policies:

Social Security. Lifelong single people pay into Social Security throughout their working years. Yet they cannot designate a recipient of their benefits after they die; that money goes back into the system. Nor can anyone designate them as the recipient of their benefits. Married people, in contrast, can receive each other’s benefits. Married people can receive a spouse’s benefits even if they never worked themselves. People who are divorced can also receive benefits from an ex if they meet the relevant requirements (for example, if they were married long enough). In fact, they can line up the potential benefits from an array of ex’s and pick the best one.

Taxes. Married couples have access to tax breaks that single people do not. The relevant taxes include income taxes, estate taxes, and more. In addition to the usual two remedies (single people should be able to access the same tax breaks – for example, by designating a beneficiary or by forming a financial partnership with the person of their choice; or marital status should be entirely irrelevant to issues of taxation), a third possibility was also floated. Maybe unmarried people who live alone should get the breaks, since all their expenses are theirs alone, whereas married couples often have two incomes to cover one set of household costs.

Health and health care. Unmarried and single Americans are concerned about the cost of health care, the access to health insurance that married people often have in their workplaces that single people do not, the time they devote to caring for others that goes entirely uncompensated, and the care they may need from others that they cannot easily get because the others who are willing to provide that care are not spouses.

Here are some of the relevant responses:

  • “Allow me to decide to care for another as my ‘dependent’ even if they are not my spouse, parent, or disabled child. Allow me to add someone to my insurance policy or any ‘family plan’ in the same way.”
  • Allow single people “the ability to bestow and receive health benefits rather than just have it limited to spousal/nuclear family arrangements.”
  • Reduce health care costs.
  • Extend the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover “close friends or unmarried partners or other family members.”
  • “Build professional support people into the Affordable Care Act and Medicare for people who do not have family members to care for them, to provide transportation to and from the hospital for outpatient surgery, for example, that will be covered by insurance. Married people would also be able to use this if their spouse was unable to help them.”
  • “I was the primary care giver for almost twenty years of my life and didn’t get a cent nor credit for it.”

A few other suggestions went beyond modifications or extensions of existing laws. For example:

  • “Legalize voluntary euthanasia for those who are suffering intolerable pain and loss of dignity.”
  • Create “a place to enter my medical and end-of-life wishes in a registry so they wouldn’t have to call my ‘next of kin’ who does not exist.”

Unconditional Basic Income

Several people made the case for an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). Some noted the relevance to married as well as unmarried people. Examples:

  • “UBI would heavily benefit parents and other caregivers (a job that seems to disproportionately fall on single women) by providing financial security for unpaid caregiving work.”
  • “I receive no benefits even though I was disabled by an incident caused by another person. My income potential is limited but I can’t get approved for any existing disability programs without giving up my home.”
  • UBI “automatically shields people financially trapped in marriage and provides a safety net for anyone alone.”

Marketplace Fairness

There are many ways in which married couples and families are advantaged in the marketplace. For example, when they get discounts on car insurance, health insurance, or any other products and services, those special rates are subsidized by the single people who are paying full price. Restaurant deals based on the purchase of two meals are another example – they exclude those who are dining solo. In the travel industry, the single supplement is all too common – and abhorred by single people.

Workplace Fairness

When married workers get benefits that single workers do not get, they are getting greater compensation for the same work. Here’s one striking example:

“When my employer changed our benefits plan in 2006 they sent us a fact sheet where they revealed the value of their subsidization of health care premiums. $8k for singles, $16k for married couples/domestic partners, $24k for families. A differential of SIXTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS of compensation. Meanwhile, my nieces and nephew had no health insurance. I would have so loved to be able to add them to my policy. Or just increase my pay by $16k. It’s probably more $$ now.”

Workplace inequities go beyond financial considerations:

“Single people are often expected to pick up more of the workload and travel more because we don’t have anyone at home waiting for us. No recognition of the fact that we also don’t have anyone at home doing half the chores, watching the dog while we’re at work, etc.”

Issues Relevant to Children

Unmarried Americans are concerned about the unfair treatment of single parents and their children. Unmarried people who have no children raised a different set of issues. Here are some examples of both:

  • “Birth rights of single mothers: How in heavens name can you seriously tell a single woman, she has to have in writing, the permission of the man who never wanted anything to do with her pregnancy in the first place and who successfully made all sorts of illegal maneuvers to get sole possession of her kids, that she needs his permission in writing to get their birth documents because you all are not married! As it turned out that is the law on the books where I live, most of which is horribly skewed against women, especially single women. And no I don’t live in some under developed country. I live in the United States of America.”
  • “Maternity/paternity leave: I’m all for sabbaticals, but let people have a set number of them for any use. I will never get that time off because I choose not to reproduce, but I pay for others to take the time off through workload, taxes, insurance premiums, etc.”
  • “Childfree people should get a tax break for school tax. We can apply that towards our retirement or healthcare costs. If parents get tax breaks for ‘children by choice,’ give childfree people a choice of a tax break benefit to use towards caring for an aging relative, a pet, a friend, a neighbor, a homeless person, or a Veteran.”

Beyond Laws and Policies: Perceptions and Practices in Everyday Life

Single people object to the relentless stereotyping, as, for example, when they are viewed as immature or incomplete simply because they are not married. They also dislike many of the prevailing norms around coupling, such as the practice of offering a plus-one invitation to people who are coupled but not to people who are single. This includes not just weddings and other social events, but even cultural and educational events, such as those offered by alumni organizations.

[Notes. (1) Thanks to everyone who offered their thoughtful responses to my question. (2) The opinions expressed here do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (3) The comment option on the UE website has been invaded by spammers, so I have disabled comments for now. I’ll post all these blog posts at the UE Facebook page; please join our discussions there.]

 Bella color, square, 376 dpi

About the Author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of  How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.


Previous columns:

#18 How Unmarried Americans Fare as Home Buyers: Single Women, Single Men, and Unmarried Couples

#17 How the Important People in the Lives of Unmarried Americans Are Shortchanged

#16 We the Unmarried: Universities Just Aren’t into Us, and That Needs to Change

#15 The Subversive Implication of Same-Sex Marriage that No One Predicted

#14 Journalists and Social Scientists Glorify Married People. Will We All Look Back in Shame?

#13 Why Is Marriage Still So Glorified When So Many People Are Not Married?

#12 Beyond the Nuclear Family: New Policies and Practices Are Needed for the Way We Live Now

#11 How the Washington Post (Almost) Published a Week of Respectful Articles about Unmarried Life

#10 Unmarried Status Is a Diversity Issue

#9 Unmarried Americans as home buyers and home creators

#8 The right to be single

#7 Nuclear family privilege: Naming it and slaying it

#6 Is marriage a greedy institution?

#5 Housing Discrimination against People Who Are Not Married: What We Just Don’t Get

#4 Now It’s Really Time for Unmarried Equality

#3 3 Roads to Social Justice – For Lasting Change, We Must Follow Them All

#2 The Global Struggle for Unmarried Equality: The Case of Finland

#1 The Marriage Opportunists Are Coming – We Need to Be Prepared (or click here for a version that includes links)

About Bella DePaulo