The share of married Americans has fallen to 45%, down from 50% in 2015. At the same time, the share of Americans who are not in a romantic relationship rose to 37% from 32% over the same period.
That’s according to the eighth annual American Family Survey by Deseret News, a publishing company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
The percentage of people who were cohabiting remained steady at 11%; another 7% said they were in a relationship but not cohabiting with their partner (down from 8% in 2015), the survey found.
However, people most likely to benefit from state and federal subsidies — joint bankruptcy filings, and tax and immigration laws — live in “traditional” households, typically consisting of a husband, wife and children, Mechele Dickerson, law professor at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote in her recent paper published in Emory Bankruptcy Developments Journal.
“Changes in social mores, the legalization of same-sex marriages, bans on gender discrimination in labor markets, and widening economic inequality make it more likely that today’s households will consist of a multi-generational family, single parents, unmarried partners, childless married couples, and married parents who both earn income in the paid labor market,” Dickerson added.
“‘That’s just not the way American society looks anymore.’”
— Mechele Dickerson, law professor at the University of Texas, Austin
Married couples have many advantages in the U.S. They can, for example, reduce their filing fees and their legal expenses by filing joint bankruptcy petitions, and they can lower their federal and state income tax by filing a joint tax return. Married couples can also petition for one partner — who is not a U.S. citizen — to acquire a Green Card so they can live and work in the United States.
U.S. legal and economic systems favor married people, particularly upper-income, college-educated couples who are white, because that’s the demographic more likely to belong to the “traditional” married household, Dickerson said.
But fewer people are choosing traditional nuclear families. “That’s just not the way American society looks anymore,” she told MarketWatch. “It’s one thing to say that’s what we think life should be, and [another thing to say] what life actually is.”
Indeed, from 1970 to 2016, the share of dual-income families rose to 66% from 49%, according to the Pew Research Center a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.
A rising share of U.S. adults aged 25 to 54 is living with a romantic partner — but choosing not to get married, according to separate Pew survey carried out in 2021. Those who identified as cohabiting rose to 9% in 2019 from 4% in 1990.
Concerning demographic changes
The number of people who say they are not in any relationship is concerning, Christopher Karpowitz, one of the co-authors of the report, told an event held Tuesday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. research organization, to discuss the American Family Survey.
“I do worry if people are opting out of any sort of relationship whatsoever, or unable to find those relationships for whatever reason,” said Karpowitz, who is also a co-director at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and a professor of political science at Brigham Young University.
This demographic change could mean lower birth rates, at a time when the U.S birth rate reached an all-time low, and is below the replacement rate to sustain the population, Dickerson added.
In the past 15 years, the U.S. saw a 20% drop in births. That decline in birth rates may also lead to labor-supply shortages in the future, economists say.
At the same time, American adults are marrying later. The median age for a first marriage increased by 7 years in age for both men and women over five decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the 1960s, it was 23 years of age for men and 20 for women; in 2016, that estimate rose to 30 for men and 28 for women.
“‘I do worry if people are opting out of any sort of relationship.’”
— Christopher Karpowitz, professor of political science at Brigham Young University
All of these factors have a knock-on effect on people’s finances. It takes young people 10 more years to locate a good job that pays around $57,000 a year compared to the generation 20 years ago, a separate Georgetown University report concluded. Today, people are in their mid-thirties before reaching that salary. This affects everything from purchasing a car and a home to getting married.
With inflation at 40-year-high, lower-income families with kids shoulder the most stress from rising prices, economists say. Working mothers reported burnout during the pandemic balancing childcare and jobs. Childcare costs, meanwhile, surged due to a labor shortage in daycare centers and public schools. Around 60% of U.S. households cannot afford an entry-level home.
“The economic challenges facing families today are absolutely real, and the structure of family life is meaningful in doing things like reducing levels of loneliness,” Karpowitz told the event.
Given the demographic shift away from traditional marriage, Dickerson told MarketWatch that the legal, financial and tax systems in the U.S. should pay equal breaks to single people and nontraditional households. She also noted that marriage does not necessarily guarantee the satisfaction and well-being of a person, either financially or emotionally.
“We assume that they will be happy marriages,” she said. “And we assume that they will be self-sufficient marriages.”
The hard reality of married life for millions of Americans, she added, does not always bear that out.