“Being unmarried is increasingly the norm, not the alternative,” said Center for American Progress Senior Economist Heather Boushey at a CAP event last Wednesday on unmarried women’s economic security. Boushey added that we cannot afford to continue a policy rooted in the “idealized past…We can do better for women and their families.”
Boushey moderated a panel featuring Page Gardner, founder and president of Women’s Voices. Women Vote and co-author of a new CAP report on unmarried women, and Avis Jones-DeWeever, director of research and public policy at the National Council of Negro Women’s Information Center for African-American Women. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) was the keynote speaker.
Today, nearly half of all U.S. women are unmarried—a huge shift from 50 years ago when only one-third of women were unmarried. Gardner added that “the share of never‐married women has almost doubled, while those who have separated or divorced has tripled.” We are no longer a nation of married couples, since most women will spend at least part of their adult lives as the sole supporter of themselves or their families, and Gardner said these “current patterns of living” must be recognized and included in public policy.
This growing group of unmarried women face major economic disparities. They represent 63 percent of unemployed women, 60 percent of women without health insurance, and three-quarters of women in poverty. What’s more, women who head families face even higher unemployment with an average rate of 11.3 percent in 2009.
Unmarried women are too often “shortchanged” despite the fact that they’re quickly becoming a major political and economic force, Rep. DeLauro said. “Even today women are making 78 cents on the dollar” and unmarried women make on average 56 cents to the married man’s dollar. Our current public policy is structured on an outdated vision of a nuclear family “that has always been more ideal than the norm,” Rep. DeLauro added.
The CAP and Women’s Voices. Women Vote report by CAP Policy Analyst Liz Weiss and Gardner released at the event sets out a comprehensive economic security agenda for improving the economic conditions of unmarried women. It focuses on jobs and the workplace, single mothers, housing, health care, personal finances, and retirement.
According to Boushey, the top four “actionable items for today” listed in the report are:
- The health care system overhaul currently pending in Congress, which would fill a major gap in public policy by greatly expanding the availability and affordability of health insurance.
- A proposed reauthorization and expansion of the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which provides subsidies for child care to low-income families.
- The expected reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, which Congress can use to focus on the workforce development needs of single women. Bills such as the Pathways Advancing Career Training Act and the Women WIN Jobs Act would target opportunities for job training and good jobs to women.
- The Paycheck Fairness Act, on which a Senate committee held a hearing this month and the House passed in January 2009. Women continue to face gender-based pay discrimination, and this bill would strengthen legal protections against wage discrimination.
Jones-DeWeever stressed that “An unmarried women’s agenda in the end spells out what’s best for an American agenda,” because “all of us” benefit from improved access to job benefits, health care reform, and retirement security. Unmarried women “have earned the right” to advance their agenda, and this new report is “critical” to address unmarried women’s contributions to “this nation as a whole.”
It’s clear that marital status should not determine a woman’s economic security. “Women should not have to rely… on someone else… to be self-sufficient,” Jones-DeWeever said. It is “quite simply unjust” in America to force women to choose between a job and their children. We need to “take a step back as a society and think about what we really value and work toward that,” Jones-DeWeever added.
“We live in the most family-hostile country in the world” when we value a 1950s nuclear family model over the common reality, said Boushey.
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-3)
Page Gardner, Founder and President, Women’s Voices. Women Vote; coauthor, "Advancing the Economic Security of Unmarried Women: Overview of Laws and Legislation in the 111th Congress"
Avis Jones-DeWeever, Director, Research, Public Policy, and Information Center for African-American Women, National Council of Negro Women
Heather Boushey, Senior Economist, Center for American Progress