U.S. laws and workplace practices, though, are too often based on a model of the nuclear family; adults are assumed to have a spouse and children. That’s not today’s reality. Nearly as many American adults are unmarried as married, and the proportion of nuclear family households has dipped below 20 percent.
Because our policies have not caught up with the ways we live now, many Americans — especially those who are single without children — have fewer basic benefits and protections than their fellow Americans who are married with children.
Consider, for example, the Family and Medical Leave Act. Under this federal law, employees at qualifying workplaces can take time off to care for a spouse, parent or child. Single people, by definition, have no spouse. The most important person in their life might be a close friend, a sibling or other relative. When those people fall ill, the single person may want to be at their side just as much as one spouse wants to be there for the other, but that’s not covered. What’s more, no such friends or relatives are covered under the law to be there for a single person in need of care.
Many workplace bereavement policies allow employees to take time off to attend the funerals of immediate family members. Often, less time is allowed for relatives who are not immediate family members. Close friends may not be covered at all. Again, the people who may matter most to single people, those whose deaths are among their most grievous losses, are treated as inconsequential.
Company health insurance plans are another example. Married parents can sometimes add a spouse and children to the plan, but single people cannot add the person most important to them, nor can any such person do the same for the single person. Similarly, employer retirement plans sometimes cover a spouse but no one else.
Single people who have just their own earnings and assets are more financially vulnerable than couples with two incomes. Research has shown that single people do more than their share of caring for aging parents and others in need of long-term help, yet if that caregiving means taking time off from paid work, they do not have a spouse who can step in to pay the bills. That means it can be especially important that any family leave that they take — or any sick leave for their own illnesses — is paid.
The leave provided under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act is unpaid. However, political candidates such as Hillary Clinton, as well as a variety of advocacy groups, have given paid leave prominence on their agendas, with many successes already notched. As the economist Heather Boushey noted, “In the past decade, more than two-dozen states and localities have passed laws giving workers the right to earn paid sick days.” In D.C., a proposed 16-week family leave plan would be the most generous one in the nation.
Paid family leave is of little help to single people if it does not cover the people who count as family to them. Fortunately, there is some progress on that front, too. In a September executive order, President Obama required federal contractors to provide sick leave for their employees. The leave “may be used by an employee for an absence resulting from caring for a child, a parent, a spouse, a domestic partner, or any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.”
The affinity clause was a major victory for single people. It wasn’t the first. Two months before, the National Partnership for Women and Families compiled a summary of legislative action on paid sick days at the state and local levels. They found the same wording in bills that were proposed in four states — Arizona, Hawaii, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The various workplace benefits offered only to married workers can result in a total annual compensation that is many thousands of dollars less for single employees than for married employees doing the same work. Some companies have adopted more equitable alternatives, such as cafeteria-style benefits programs that offer all employees, regardless of marital or parental status, the same number of credits that can be applied toward the benefits that best meet their individual needs.
Minimum wage initiatives, campaigns for more affordable housing and other such policies are important to people of many different family statuses, but they are especially consequential for single people who have only their income to rely on. For the same reason, equal pay is particularly important for single women.
These policies that are particularly relevant to singles are just a few of many. As the proponents of same-sex marriage often reminded us, there are more than 1,000 laws, just at the federal level, that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. The Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage did nothing for the millions of single people of all sexual orientations, who are still excluded.