UNMARRIED Americans: growing in numbers but not in political power

Saturday, May 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Roughly 82 million strong, unmarried adults form one of the biggest demographic blocs in the nation. But converting those numbers into political clout is a daunting task.

When leaders of the American Association for Single People swung through congressional offices recently _ complaining tax policies are stacked against them _ one legislative aide challenged every point they made. Others were attentive, but some snickered and rolled their eyes.

``Family, family, family,'' was the message that the association's executive director, Thomas Coleman, kept hearing, from Democrats and Republicans alike. At one point, he asked a Republican adviser why President Bush talks so often about families and so rarely about unmarried Americans.

``What's so wrong with the word 'single?''' Coleman wondered. ``He's the president of all the people _ why can't he once in a while say the word? It would make people feel wanted and needed.''

Census data released this month shows that alternative household arrangements are increasing across the United States more rapidly than households headed by married couples. There are larger percentages of people living alone _ nearly 26 percent of all households _ and of unmarried couples living together.

Yet lawmakers in Washington and state legislatures rarely target their speeches or bills at singles.

Instead, said University of Southern California sociologist Judith Stacey, unmarried adults often are disadvantaged by tax, insurance and employment policies. The government's emphasis is on making it easier to raise a family, not to live alone.

``We have larger numbers of single people than ever in history, and yet we're actively promoting discrimination against them,'' Stacey said. ``It's as though being single is a social disgrace.''

For groups promoting the traditional family structure, however, it makes sense to place singles lower on the political totem pole.

``The institution of marriage has a whole spectrum of benefits for children, which spill over into benefits to society,'' said Matt Daniels, executive director of the Alliance for Marriage. ``It's perfectly acceptable for a society to choose, as a matter of public policy, to provide special treatment for parents who are married and raising children.''

Singles-rights advocates, by and large, don't complain about programs benefiting children. They do complain about what they perceive as inequities, such as employment benefits reserved for married workers or housing policies accommodating married couples but not unmarried partners.

Debbie Deem, 49, of Santa Barbara, Calif., still seethes over being denied a job as a probation worker in Arizona in 1988 because she acknowledged living in an unmarried relationship.

Since then, Deem has detected more tolerance toward nontraditional living arrangements. ``People can have choices in how they want to live,'' she said.

Dorian Solot, co-founder of the Boston-based Alternatives to Marriage Project, said politicians have not kept pace with the increasing diversity of American home life.

``They cling to the image of cookie-cutter neighborhoods where every household is the same, yet it hasn't been that way for a while,'' she said.

Still, most politicians are steadfastly pro-marriage and pro-family. One of the handful of bachelors in Congress, Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill., is a leading backer of legislation to cut taxes for all married couples, whether they had incurred a penalty or a bonus under existing tax laws.

Another Illinois Republican, Rep. Mark Kirk, has a distinct perspective: At 41, he is abandoning bachelorhood to get married in August.

Kirk empathizes with singles _ ``There are so many Americans out there who come home just to their cat or dog of goldfish'' _ but says Congress is justified in putting a pro-family tilt on legislation.

``We try to care for those who are vulnerable, and children are the most vulnerable of all,'' he said. ``The future of the country depends on families.''

One of the few congressmen to speak recently in defense of singles was Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat whose district in and around Austin, Texas, has a high proportion of single voters.

``Though I have enjoyed 32 years of marriage, I see no reason why our tax laws should so discriminate against those who are single,'' he said as Republicans pushed their proposal to cut taxes for all married couples.

Doggett's staff counsel, Melissa Mueller, met with Coleman during his trip to Washington and came away wondering about the political viability of the singles-rights cause.

``Where do they get their grass-roots support from?'' she asked. ``Do single people mobilize, write letters?''

Coleman is aware of the challenges.

``We have been conditioned _ by family, friends, religions _ that marriage is the ideal, that all of us will get married and stay married for life, that we should reward marriage,'' Coleman said. ``With that kind of conditioning, its hard to change attitudes, even of single people.''