Outside the Box: Single Americans are hurting economically this Valentine’s Day

This Valentine’s Day, people all over the United States are generating billions of dollars for the economy by purchasing stuffed teddy bears, dark chocolates, and expensive jewelry, all in the name of love.

While the day is filled with romance for some, as many as 45% of U.S. adults aren’t planning on celebrating Valentine’s Day. These individuals, who are likely mostly single, need some extra love and attention — at least economically speaking — as single individuals face more economic insecurity than married or cohabiting individuals.

Single individuals have higher unemployment rates and lower levels of wealth than their married or cohabiting counterparts (defined as those who live with their partner but are unmarried). As shown in the figure below, the unemployment rates of single individuals are the highest, followed by the rates of cohabiting individuals. Married individuals have the lowest unemployment rates at less than 3%.

The poor economic outcomes experienced by single individuals has to do in part with the fact that married individuals tend to be older and more educated. Additionally, married individuals benefit from factors that single individuals lack, including often having the safety net of having another working adult, and economies of scale. These economies of scale include living in the same house, sharing groceries, having the same internet and TV subscriptions, and using many other shared goods and services.

The economic outcomes of single individuals are increasingly relevant in today’s society, since a historically high share of U.S. adults — more than 40% — were living without a spouse or partner in 2017. People are spending an increasing percentage of their lives single due to factors such as later ages of first marriage and increased economicindependence of women.

The fact that people are spending a larger percentage of their lives single is not inherently negative. Rather, delayed marriage has been associated with positive economic outcomes for women such as higher labor-force participation rates, increased earnings, and lower poverty rates for women later in life. The real problem is that there are many instances in which our society and laws punish single individuals and reward married individuals. For example, married individuals can contribute to their IRA even when they have no taxable income and benefit from lower insurance rates, while single workers are the only ones that can be taxed into poverty. Additionally, economic studies have shown that people view men as more employable once they are married — but the opposite is true for married women.

Wealth and economic security are increasingly seen as prerequisites to marriage. The education gap in marital rates has been growing over time: marital rates of individuals with some college or less have decreased more rapidly than the marital rates of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, leaving a larger gap between the two groups than ever before. Additionally, 41% of adults who have never married, but would like to marry, cite a lack of financial stability as the reason for not yet having married. This has led to a paradox where many individuals feel they can’t afford to marry but are in fact further penalized for not doing so.

Importantly, the economic security of single individuals varies by gender and race. While single women tend to have lower incomes than single men, they also have lower unemployment rates than single men. Prime-age single black men and women have shockingly high unemployment rates at 10.4% and 8.9%, respectively. Single Hispanic and white men have similar unemployment rates at 5.9% and 5.5%, while the unemployment rate of Hispanic women at 5.4% is over a percentage point higher than the rate for white women at 4.1%.

Finally, it is important to note that, while faring better than single individuals, cohabiting individuals tend to have worse economic outcomes than married individuals. While cohabiting individuals benefit from similar economies of scale as married people and have the economic support of a partner, they don’t experience the same legal advantages married individuals experience. Additionally, cohabiting individuals tend to be younger and are more likely to live in poverty than married individuals (though some data show college grads in their early 30s who live together earn more than college grads the same age who are married). As many individuals cohabit before marriage, economic stresses may lower the likelihood that cohabiting partners will marry.

As our country’s demographic shifts away from marriage as the norm, paying attention to the outcomes of single and cohabiting individuals has become increasingly important. Our policies need to work for all kinds of families, not just married ones, as everyone needs access to good quality jobs, education, and health care.

Additionally, while certain policies, such as increasing the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid, can help married people stay together, encouraging marriage as a way to fight poverty is not a sufficient solution. Policy makers would benefit to end reliance on assumptions that singleness causes individuals to be worse off, rather than that people who are worse off are more likely to be single.

Annie McGrew is a research assistant at the Center for American Progress.

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