By Amey Stone
For Susan Ross, a 43-year-old actress living in New York City, the ultimate indignity of single life came 15 years ago at a family gathering. That was the Christmas when she went to her parents' house to find that the guest bedrooms, cots, and pull-out couches had gone to her siblings, their spouses, and their children. When she realized that no overnight accommodations had been made for her, she kicked the family dog off his Orvis cedar-chip bed and snoozed in his place under the grand piano. Says Ross: "I had to steal the spot from the lowest member of the family on the totem pole -- which was the dog."
Ross is happy to joke about the numerous injustices of single life, but bitter truths are clearly behind her jests, some of which hit her directly in the pocketbook. You could hardly put a price tag on all the wedding and baby-shower gifts she has bestowed over the years, even as she had to buy her own china and flatware. She and her single friends joke about the "communism of couples," noting the discounts married people get on things like club memberships, vacations, and rental cars. "Everything is geared toward couples," she observes.
Her reality is growing only more visible lately as gay couples fight in state courts around the country for the right to marry, and President Bush has came out in favor of a Constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages. Marriage is "the most fundamental institution of civilization," he declared in a White House address. The Bush Administration now hopes to use federal money to back programs that encourage the poor to marry as a way to better their financial condition.
"In a sense, marriage is getting more heightened," says Joan Williams, co-director of the Gender, Work & Family Project at the American University Law School. She thinks Ross is onto something: All this attention to marriage may be making single people feel like second-class citizens.
Consider that married couples get many financial and legal advantages that single people don't enjoy. Probably the biggest discrepancy is with corporate-benefit programs, which are still designed with the prototypical worker being a man with a stay-at-home wife and kids to provide for, says Williams. The extension of benefits to a spouse and children amounts to a pay increase for marrieds that single people don't get. Williams hopes more corporations will embrace "cafeteria plans," which allow workers to pick and choose the benefits that apply to their lives.
Estate planning is another area where unmarried adults are often slighted. Singles may get gypped out of their rightful inheritances as parents grant equal slices of the family pie to sons- and daughters-in-law and grandchildren rather than divvy funds up by household. Ross says her parents made this mistake -- and it was her siblings who took steps to correct it. Unmarried couples lose out on married couples' rights to inherit a spouse's estate tax-free as well as to inherit their Social Security benefits.
Insurers tend to offer lower rates to married people for everything from auto to renters coverage. An assortment of health clubs, country clubs, and automobile clubs typically have family memberships that are less expensive per person and are allotted only to married couples.
The list goes on. In fact, a 1997 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office tallied 1,049 federal laws in which marriage is a factor. Although being single has some financial benefits, "the lion's share go to people who are married, whether they are employment benefits, taxation breaks, or consumer discounts," says Thomas Coleman, executive director of the Los Angeles-based American Association for Single People.
Ultimately, however, it may be the general lack of status and recognition afforded to unmarried people that amounts to singles' greatest gripe. "Whether or not it is your fourth or fifth marriage, there's this halo effect around being married," Coleman says.
Williams says society needs to stop confusing married life with a full adult life. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that married couples make up just 51% of all households, down from 80% in the 1950s. Singles are soon to be the new majority (see BW, 10/20/03, "Unmarried America"). "Yet most people still see having 'a spouse, two kids, a house, and white picket fence' as normal," says Williams.
As reality changes, attitudes and traditions need to change as well. For example, Williams suggests that friends throw showers when young people get their first apartment or buy their first home -- events that these days rarely coincide with a wedding. "We confuse the need to set up a household with getting married," says Williams. "There should be a new way to celebrate the occasion."
WILL WORK FOR SCHOOL.
She warns, however, the change has to be in the direction of extending benefits to single people, not taking them away from married people, who if they have children are often strapped for cash as well as time.
One reason married people get some extra breaks is that marriage is associated with having children, and children cost so much to care for and educate. In The Two-Income Trap, authors Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi show how working parents are literally bankrupting themselves to pay for houses in good school districts. Despite working longer hours and making 75% more money, many two-income families today actually have less disposable income than their parents, the book shows.
Still, two-parent families are typically far better off than single parents, who are the most financially strapped demographic. That's one reason the Bush Administration is so keen on promoting marriage among low-income families.
"KIND OF WONDERFUL."
It can sometimes be hard for people in traditional families to empathize with injustices suffered by single people, who, if they don't have children, often have the most disposable income and free time. But singles deserve community support rather than slights, advises Williams. "They are some of the key people who are keeping our communities alive," she says. "They dedicate the time that other people devote to their families."
Ross admits she has a lot more financial freedom than many of her married-with-children friends. "Your money is just yours, which is really kind of wonderful." For singles like Ross, that reality may not confer the recognition, legal, and financial status of marriage. But, over the years, it has helped soothe some of the sting.
Stone is a senior writer at BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht