The Economic Security
of Unmarried Women
SOURCE: Flickr / Gabriela Camerotti
Despite the economic disparities unmarried women face in the U.S., they make major contributions to the economy and their communities. Most unmarried women work outside the home, and they are more than a fifth of the nation's workers. In this excerpt from a piece originally published by the Center for American Progress, Weiss and Gardner explore the ways in which unmarried American women are economically vulnerable, and outline policy suggestions that could ensure their security.
Today nearly half of women are unmarried--a transformational societal change from 1960 when only one-third of women were unmarried. And today virtually every woman will spend at least part of her adult life as the sole supporter of herself or her family. With so many women living on their own, it is crucial that lawmakers take seriously unmarried women's economic security needs.
Unfortunately, the economic circumstances of unmarried women are troubling. They face greater economic insecurity compared to the general population or their married counterparts by almost any measure. They must confront disproportionate unemployment, poverty, and lack of health insurance, as well as other hardships. Despite being just under half of the female population, they represent 63 percent of unemployed women, 60 percent of women without health insurance, and three-quarters of women in poverty.
There are many roots of these inequities. First, like all women, unmarried women face gender-based wage discrimination and segregation into lower-paying occupations, and they earn less on average than married women. Second, many unmarried women hold low-wage jobs that do not support an adequate standard of living, especially for a family or a woman living on one income. And these low-wage jobs often do not provide benefits like health insurance, sick time, or other basic necessities. Factors like race or sexual orientation too often result in additional discrimination and unequal job opportunities.
Third, many unmarried women have family responsibilities-to their partners, children, parents, or extended family-but too many workplaces are not family friendly. For many unmarried women, finding quality child or elder care is difficult and may be very expensive-more even than their own income.
Finally, the definition of "family" in policy is outdated, stuck in the 1950s notion of a nuclear family that excludes too many of today's nontraditional families. Many policies, particularly sharing of health insurance and retirement plans, are based on one's marital status regardless of the fact that nearly half of the population today is unmarried. The combination of these factors puts too many unmarried women in a unique but unfortunately precarious economic position.
Despite the economic disparities unmarried women face, they make major contributions to the economy and their communities. Most unmarried women work outside the home, and they are more than a fifth of the nation's workers. They are a sizeable and growing consumer group, too, who are already demonstrating their economic prowess and independence by purchasing homes, representing a fifth of homebuyers in 2008. They are also heads of households and caregivers who are taking care of our elders and raising the next generation, and they are serving as the economic decision makers for enormous numbers of people-affecting all major sectors of our economy. But their potential contribution is unrealized.
Fortunately, many current and proposed policies will benefit unmarried women. This report outlines an economic security agenda for unmarried women that focuses on the key areas of legislation in the 111th Congress that would benefit them, including good jobs; policies for single mothers and their children; quality, affordable health care; adequate, affordable housing; financial protection; and a secure, dignified retirement.
The report is intended to serve as a resource for policymakers and advocates concerned about the economic security of unmarried women. It examines legislation under discussion, rather than ideal recommendations, and there is ample room for improvement, which will be examined in future work at the Center for American Progress and by Women's Voices. Women Vote. Still, each of the new laws and proposed policy changes described in this report has its place in an agenda to improve unmarried women's economic conditions. Together, this legislation would make significant progress.
Congress doesn't need to wait to get started on this agenda, either. The top four policy proposals described in this report that are likely to move through Congress quickly and would have a significant impact on the economic security of unmarried women 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, which the Senate is expected to consider this year 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.
Unmarried women--and our country--will be helped when public policy recognizes new ways of living, encourages and supports self- and family-sustaining employment, and ensures that all people and all families, regardless of their marital status, can achieve and maintain a good standard of living and a well-balanced life.