CENSUS: Big increase in unmarried couples

Tuesday, May 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Americans, collectively, are growing older. And they're expanding their ideas of what it means to ``settle down.''

There was a 71 percent increase in the number of unmarried partners living together between 1990 and 2000, the latest census finds. It dwarfed the growth in married-couple households, up 7 percent the past decade.

Data released by the Census Bureau Tuesday also showed larger increases in other alternative arrangements: a 25 percent increase in the number of women living with their own child but without a husband; and a 21 percent growth in the number of people living alone.

Later this year the Census Bureau will reveal more details, such as how many unmarried couples were in same-sex relationships, or how many people living alone were elderly widows.

Still, the figures should place new pressure on lawmakers to deal with the issues of changing family structures, said Thomas Coleman, executive director of the American Association of Single People. Those issues include expanding employee benefits for domestic partners and recognizing same-sex partnerships.

``We're just saying let's even the playing field a bit,'' Coleman said. ``If we are doling out benefits fairly, let's dole them out to single and unmarried people, and married people.''

The Census Bureau is also releasing Tuesday detailed breakdowns of the Asian population by different nationalities, and breakdowns of the American population by age group.

Changes in living arrangements came as the population, as a whole, grew older _ the median age of 35.3 is the highest ever, the Census Bureau reported.

There was a 38 percent increase in the number of people age 85 and older, a jump attributed to healthier lifestyles and medical advances. The biggest increase came in the population of people 45-54, thanks to the baby boomers.

It's not surprising that changes in family life came at a time when boomers who grew up in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s were raising their own families, said John Rother, legislative director for AARP, the country's largest advocacy group for retirees.

``There's one word to describe boomers, and that's 'diversity,''' Rother said. ``Not just within ethnic identity but within income and family arrangements as well.''

Overall, there were 54.5 million married-couple families in 2000, or about 52 percent of the country's 105.5 million households, the census reported. In 1990, there were 50.7 million married-couple homes, 55 percent of all households then.

By comparison, unmarried-partner homes number 5.5 million now, or about 5 percent of all homes, up from the 3 percent reported a decade ago.

``I don't need the trappings of weddings and bridal showers to make me feel worthy or guarantee a commitment,'' said Teri Hu of Fremont, Calif., who has raised two kids with her live-in boyfriend.

Some other changes noted in the report:

_There was a 38 percent increase in the number of people age 85 and older. Since women tend to live longer than men, many in this group could be widows.

_Married couples raising children under 18 made up 24 percent of all households in 2000, down from 26 percent in 1990. Some of that change may be due to some baby boomers, who ranged in age from 36 to 54 last year, having finished raising their own kids during the 1990s.

But the statistics also make it clear that plenty of Americans aren't giving up on marriage.

``The happy couples are the ones who don't get alarmed,'' said Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. ``We say 'until death do us part' and 'for better or for worse' because there is going to be conflict in marriages.''