The U.S. Census Bureau has made it official: we have entered the era of Unmarried America. And this week, "National Unmarried and Single Americans Week," is a good time for our nation's lawmakers, business owners and state governments to acknowledge and respond to what the 2010 Census has made abundantly clear: the days of Ozzie and Harriet are dead and gone and the needs and concerns of a new and emerging unmarried majority have yet to be recognized or addressed.
According to 2010 Census data:
- Nearly 100 million American, close to half of all US residents 18 and over, have never been married, or are divorced or widowed.
- One out of every two women in America is unmarried.
- For the first time in our history, married couples make up fewer than half of American households, a fact the New York Times called "a milestone in the evolution of the American family toward less traditional forms."
- The biggest change in the last decade was the jump in households headed by women without husbands -up by almost 20 percent between 2000 and 2010.
And Census and other data shows unmarried women have been hit disproportionately hard by the economic downturn:
- Unemployment rates for unmarried women are almost twice as high for unmarried women (11.6 percent) versus married women (6.1 percent).
- The poverty rate for all women rose to an historical high in 2010 --14.5 percent the poverty rate for single mothers climbed to an astronomic 40.7 percent in 2010. Today, more than half of all poor children live with single mothers.
- The number of women without health insurance rose to nearly 20 percent- the highest rate in a decade. Overall, unmarried women aged 25-64 years are more likely to be uninsured (21%) than married women (13%) in the same age group. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2008.)
But instead of recognizing these realities and responding to the needs of one of the nation's fastest growing demographic groups, lawmakers continue to push outdated ideologies and policies. Even though two-thirds of women now head their households or contribute significantly to their household income, these women continue to make 77 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make. Congress refuses to enact pay equity at a time when record numbers of unmarried women and mothers have fallen into extreme poverty. And at the same time that single women are more likely to not have health insurance, Congress voted to cut funding to Planned Parenthood - the primary health care provider for many of these women.
The Chamber of Commerce and many of the businesses they represent are just as rooted in the demography of the past. They are fighting paid sick days and other workplace policies that make it easier for today's families with children - two-thirds of whom have both parents working and 20 percent of whom are headed by unmarried women- to take a day off to care for a sick child.
Finally, many state governments have failed to encourage or make it easy for unmarried women to participate in our democracy. Right now close to 40 percent of unmarried women are not registered to vote and even though unmarried women make up 25percent of the voting- eligible population, they only make up 23percent of the electorate. Why the gap? Some of it is because these women think politics have no relevance to their lives, but too many unmarried women also encounter structural obstacles - they don't know if they are qualified to register, don't know where or how to register, or when the deadlines are -that keep them from registering.
But instead of making it easier, many states are imposing new voter identification requirements that make the process unfairly complicated. The most common new requirement, that citizens obtain and display an unexpired government-issued photo identification before being allowed to vote, was advanced in 35 states in 2011 and passed in 11 others.
Other states are adopting approaches that ensure that voting becomes more time-consuming and burdensome. Maine recently joined the states that have eliminated same day voter registration, and Florida and at least six other states have introduced legislation making it harder for independent, third- party registration groups to help these voters participate in our democracy.
Bottom line: the era of unmarried America is upon us. Instead of ignoring, trying to contain or discourage this emerging America powerhouse, our nation's political and economic leaders need to recognize it is in their own vested interest to respond to the needs and concerns of unmarried and single Americans and ensure every voice in our democracy is heard.