The Changing American Family

Families, Privileges, and the Law

Few laws protect untraditional families. In fact, at this point federal laws don't prohibit discrimination based on marital status, so unmarried families can and do face discrimination in these key areas:

  • housing
  • employment
  • adoption
  • insurance
  • child custody
  • hospital visitation
  • the ability to make a decision for a partner or child in an emergency

Wilson and Mayes are lucky -- their decision to not get married is made easier by the fact that their state, Texas, permits common-law marriage status. Declaring that lets them enjoy joint health coverage through Mayes's employer, and it smoothed the adoption process. If all states had such laws, a great many people would benefit. But only 16 states recognize common-law marriage -- and three of those require couples to prove they've been living together since the '90s, according to Nolo Press, which publishes plain-English legal information.

Why Aren't Laws Catching Up to How We're Living?

To many politicians, pushing for marriage is easier than changing laws. President Bush proposed spending $1.5 billion over five years on a Healthy Marriage Initiative to encourage couples (especially in poor communities) to marry. The money hasn't been approved, but the Department of Health and Human Services is running the program.

"Bush [advocates] marriage among low-income populations as a way to ameliorate poverty. But I'm not sure that's the answer," Brown says.

Daniel Lichter, a sociology professor at Ohio State University, goes even further. In his 2003 study, "Is Marriage a Panacea?" he shows that poverty rates for disadvantaged women who marry and then divorce are actually higher than for women who never marry in the first place. (One thought is that the loss of financial stability as a direct result of divorce -- which costs money in itself -- may set women back.) So getting married doesn't always ease the financial burden of raising kids, and it certainly doesn't help open the rigid boundaries of what "counts" as a family.

The answer probably lies in making sure all families -- whether Mom and Dad drive the minivan to soccer practice or Mom piles her stepkids onto the city bus -- receive the same kinds of rights, benefits, and treatment. Access to affordable childcare and living wages are also more direct solutions.

Discrimination against unmarried families is still real. But those families also have the love and courage it takes to press for change. Says Hamilton, "It really doesn't matter what kind of relationship the parents are in -- what matters is the love they have for their child. That is what makes a family."

Cris Beam is a writer in New York City.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2005.

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