In the Netherlands, a publication called Individual and Society is about to publish its 100th issue. They have a theme – the state of single people around the world. They have asked people in different countries to write brief overviews of single people in their country, which they will translate into Dutch. They asked me to write about singles in the U.S. Below is the first draft of what I submitted to them.
How Many Adults in the United States Are Not Married?
The number of single people in the United States has been growing for decades. In 1970, only 28 percent of all American adults, 18 and older, were single (divorced, widowed, or always-single). By 2013, that number had increased to 44 percent.
Most single people, 62 percent, have always been single. Another 24 percent are divorced, and the other 14 percent are widowed.
How Do Single (Unmarried) Americans Live?
The vast majority of unmarried Americans are not living with a romantic partner. Of the 105 million Americans 18 and older who were not married in 2013, only 14 million of them were cohabiting.
The popularity of living alone has increased greatly over time. In 1970, 17 percent of all American households were comprised of one person. By 2013, 27 percent of all households were 1-person households; that equates to 34 million Americans living alone.
Of the 105 million unmarried Americans, only 34 million live alone and only 14 million live with a romantic partner. That means that most single Americans live with other people such as friends, family members, roommates, or some combination.
What Is the Political Status of Single People in the United States?
Single people are targets of systematic discrimination in the United States. Just on the federal level, there are more than 1,000 laws affording benefits and protections only to people who are legally married. Many of these are tax benefits. Single people are also disadvantaged in their old-age pensions (Social Security). Single people cannot give their Social Security benefits to anyone else when they die; and, no other person can give their Social Security benefits to single people. Married people, in contrast, can leave their benefits to each other. There is also discrimination in housing and in health care benefits.
The 1,000+ laws favoring officially married people provided one of the important motivations for the movement for same-sex marriage. The advocates of same-sex marriage have had many victories. However, even when gays and lesbians are allowed to marry, single people of all sexual orientations are still left out. They get none of the special benefits or protections.
The widespread discrimination against single people could, in theory, provide a powerful incentive for single people to organize and work for equal treatment and social justice. However, that has not occurred. There have been singles advocacy groups, such as the American Association for Single People (which later became Unmarried America) in the past, and the Alternatives to Marriage Project, which is now called Unmarried Equality. However, membership in these organizations has always been just a very small fraction of the total number of single people in the nation.
American organizations celebrating traditional marriage as well as groups advocating for same-sex marriage are often well-funded. The singles-rights organizations, however, have always struggled financially.
Marital status makes a big difference in American elections. Married people – especially married men – more often vote for Republicans (conservatives). Single people – especially single women – more often vote for Democrats (liberals). In both 2008 and 2012, single women voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in the Presidential elections.
Despite the importance of single people to political outcomes, politicians still pay far more attention to married people and families and the issues that affect them. In a favorite phrase, candidates promise to “fight for working families.” I don’t think any major national candidate has ever promised to fight for single people. Occasionally, politicians acknowledge the struggles of single mothers, but the lives of single people with no children are largely ignored.
Perhaps because they are so often ignored, single people in the U.S. do not vote as often as married people do. For example, in the 2012 presidential election, only 39 percent of all voters were unmarried, even though unmarried people comprised 44 percent of the adult population. Single people are even less likely to vote in non-Presidential elections.
Are Single Americans Happy, Healthy, and Socially Connected?
Americans’ perceptions of single people are not as negative as they were in the past, but they still believe some of the stereotypes. For example, they sometimes think that single people are unhappy, unhealthy, and isolated, and they also believe that people who get married become happier, healthier, and more connected to other people.
Those stereotypes are wrong. Most American single people are happy and healthy, and getting married typically does not result in lasting improvements in happiness or health. (Claims to the contrary are based on flawed studies, or incorrect understandings of the results.) In some important ways, single people are even more connected to other people than married people are. For example, single people are more likely to visit and support their parents and siblings than married people are. Singles are also more likely to socialize with, encourage, and help their friends and neighbors. Once Americans get married, they have less contact with their parents and their friends than they did when they were single.
Note: If you can read Dutch, read the work of Lenie de Zwaan. I’ve heard she has written very insightfully about single people and social ties, but sadly for me, I don’t understand Dutch. Also, if any of the other contributions to the 100th issue of Individual and Society are translated into English, I will share them here after the issue is published, assuming I can get permission to do so. Also, if you are someone who comments here fairly often, I may want to mention you, in a forthcoming collection, by the name you comment under; read more here.
Man and woman with wine image available from Shutterstock.