More American women are living without a spouse than with one, recent census data shows, and those who are getting married are better educated and more financially successful than their unmarried counterparts. This paints a liberating picture for American women who can afford to live independently. But for poor single women, lack of access to the wide range of legal and economic benefits that come with marriage is a significant handicap (the US General Accounting Office estimates that there are 1,400 state and federal legal rights conferred upon married couples in the United States). That’s why some scholars, legal experts and lawmakers are saying that rights traditionally only offered to married people should be an option for domestic partners, or two family members or close friends whose finances are intertwined. Partnerships like these, rather than marriage, hold many American families together.
But what’s missing from family policy is “deeply pragmatic and respectful state policy that conforms to the way people actually live their lives,” notes Lisa Duggan, professor of social and cultural analysis and head of the American Studies program at New York University. Duggan is a signatory of the Beyond Marriage campaign, which advocates extending rights and benefits to a number of family structures outside the nuclear mold–from two friends or siblings who are each other’s primary caregivers to a single adult caring for an elderly parent, to children who are being raised by their grandparents.
Duggan is especially critical of the way that marriage is used–by social conservatives and same-sex-marriage proponents alike–to penalize people who are not married. “Who are the ‘irresponsible’ people not getting married?” she asks, pointing to new studies showing that poor and black women are more likely to remain unmarried. The way Duggan sees it, those who would most benefit from the rights of married people instead have other family bonds not recognized by the law.
One success story for Beyond Marriage activists like Duggan takes place in Salt Lake City, Utah. In a major win for gay rights advocates, Mayor Rocky Anderson issued an executive order that would provide benefits to the domestic partners of city employees. Not wanting to be upstaged, City Council members went one surprising step further–they wrote an ordinance that allows employees to choose their own “adult designee” to receive spousal benefits. This designee could be a roommate, relative or a domestic partner who lives indefinitely with the employee and is financially connected to the employee (the designee’s children are also eligible for the benefits). In a state where residents are in a huff over publicly displayed stickers with rainbow stickmen and where the stigma of polygamy looms large, the unanimous vote by the City Council was a breakthrough in family policy for the entire country. Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said, “Our approach is more fair and addresses the needs of more employees.” Despite Utah’s Defense of Marriage Act and its constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a district court ruled in favor of the “adult designee” plan. In his decision, 3rd District Judge Stephen Roth wrote that employee benefits actually have nothing to do with marriage at all, and therefore do not take away from the significance of the institution.
The Salt Lake City “adult designee” plan was successful in part because it establishes economic dependence as the criterion for extending benefits rather than a marital or sexual relationship. The council’s goal, expressed by several council members, was simply to get benefits for more families, not to do away with marriage or even suggest its obsolescence. However, some critics worry that going “beyond marriage” will alienate those who cherish marriage and recognize its cultural significance in American society. Additionally, they say, marriage and conjugal domestic partnership are important as legal tools to organize relationships and establish the responsibilities that people have to one another. As Ira Ellman, a visiting professor at Brooklyn Law School, explained in an interview, “The question isn’t whether these other relationships are less worthy.” It’s more that establishing legal binds can be complicated when marriage or sex is not involved.