NUMBER of households with unwed couples almost doubles

Saturday, May 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Nakiesha Johnson and her boyfriend plan to live together for five years to test their compatibility for marriage.

``I think if you can live with a person for a long period of time, then I think when you get married it will work out and it won't lead to divorce,'' said the 20-year-old Miami hairdresser and college student.

More Oklahomans are shacking up instead of getting hitched, doubling the number of unwed households in a decade. The development is part of overall growth of nontraditional families in the state, including a rise in households with single mothers raising children.

Unmarried couples ballooned from 27,001 in 1990 to 53,307 in the state last year, according to the latest figures from Census 2000.

That's 1.5 percent of Oklahoma's households but still lower than 5 percent nationally.

Johnson and others want to try relationships before making commitments. Others may want intimate relationships without ever marrying.

Still, some may be avoiding higher taxes for married couples. Also, younger low-income couples may not believe they can support themselves in a marriage, said Susan Chase, a sociologist at the University of Tulsa.

``I believe there is a trend where people who have less economic resources are less likely to get married just because they feel like they can't take on that commitment of marriage,'' she said.

Whatever the reasons, the trend disturbs Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who says unwed households should marry for economic and moral reasons.

``While I am pleased that Oklahoma's rate of cohabitation unmarried couples is far below the national average, it is still imperative that we as a people recognize that these figures are too high and must be reduced,'' he said.

Keating said his considers unwed couples' attitudes toward marriage irresponsible and said it is one reason he launched an initiative to better prepare people for marriage and cut the state's high divorce rate.

Even as the number of unwed couples rose, married couples with kids under 18 at home dropped 3 percent to 311,735. Other married couple households rose 3 percent to 717,611.

Almost 20 percent more adults _ 420,543 _ are living alone in Oklahoma.

But the biggest family related shift during the 1990s was the jump in single mother households with kids under 18. The number climbed almost 22 percent to 94,403.

That trend bothers service providers because many of the single mother households are below the poverty line.

``It's not anything that's new to us,'' said Mary Jo Kinzie with family support services at the state Department of Human Services. ``We do have concerns about families living in poverty, and it's very difficult for them to meet needs.''

The agency is working to administer its own program and partner with other public and private agencies, including faith-based groups, to better target resources, she said.

A national group for unmarried people, Alternatives to Marriage, said family diversity should not be considered abnormal.

The group said cohabiters in all categories of households deserve a say in areas that need attention, including marital status discrimination in housing, insurance, employment, taxes, and benefits eligibility.

``The fairytales misled us. Getting married isn't the only way to live happily ever after,'' said Dorian Solot, the group's executive director.

But clergy are concerned about continued growth in nontraditional homes.

Chuck McConkey, counseling director at Grace Fellowship Church in Tulsa, said children develop a sense of self worth watching both parents fulfill their proper roles in the home.

``I don't care how good a mom is, she can't be a dad,'' he said.

Ray Griffin, who ministers to families as associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, said he does not consider living together a proper or wholesome alternative to marriage.

``I think overall what happens is that it gives people a false sense of security that we're not going to get married and things are going to work out fine and they don't,'' he said.