Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

October 31, 2005  



Americans are warming up
to family diversity

by Thomas F. Coleman

Recent news stories, public opinion polls, and government reports all point in the same direction. Most Americans accept the reality of how we live.

It's called "family diversity."

Results of a new public opinion survey by PBS television are noteworthy. Americans have a flexible definition of the family. Most people believe that "family" is about love, togetherness, and caring for those held dear. Only one-third of Americans define a family in the most traditional sense as a “mother, father, and children,” or “a husband, wife and children.”

That same PBS poll reveals that Americans view "family" as something quite personal. When it comes to government initiatives, most parents would prefer the government stay away from matters of the home and family.

In other words, let the family define itself. Let's not have the government pass laws and regulations to exclude certain relationships from being considered a "family."

That same acceptance of family diversity surfaced in a recent poll done in Arizona. While a slight majority of residents there want "marriage" to be defined restrictively -- one man and one woman -- the vast majority rejects the idea of the government excluding "domestic partners" from the definition of "family" and from corresponding eligibility for job benefits and other protections afforded to family relationships.

The poll, commissioned by Arizona State University, found strong opposition among registered Arizona voters toward an initiative which would ban state and local government employers from offering domestic partner benefits. A majority said they would oppose an amendment that would ban both same-sex marriages and domestic-partner benefits for unmarried government employees. A large number also said they would oppose a ban on just domestic-partners benefits.

Such public support for domestic partner benefits has translated into growing corporate support for an expanded definition of "family" in terms of job benefits in the private sector. These benefits are even catching on in some "red states" known for "traditional family values."

The Salt Lake Tribune just released a story reporting that a growing number of employers in Utah are now including domestic partners in benefits packages formerly reserved to spouses. Among them are Sky West Airlines and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Utah.

Nearly half of all Fortune 500 companies now offer domestic partner benefits, as do more than 8,000 employers throughout the nation.

Family diversity is not limited to adult relationships. As a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics shows, children are a part of this mosaic of diversity as well.

The report documents that childbearing by unmarried women reached a record high of almost 1.5 million births in 2004, up 4 percent from 2003. Nearly 36 percent of children born in 2004 were the offspring of single parents.

Although 80 percent of respondents in the PBS poll felt that "it is better for children if their parents are married," most of them also seemed to accept other realities.

For example, 52 percent said that "divorce is usually the best solution if a couple can't seem to work out their marital problems." Only 22 percent felt that divorce is a sin.

Nearly half of respondents in the PBS poll felt that it is okay for a couple to live together without intending to get married.

Some 55 percent agreed with the statement that "love is what makes a family, and it doesn't matter if parents are gay or straight, single or married."

Americans seem to be very practical when it comes to sex education in the schools. Despite all of the promotion of "abstinence only" curricula, only 18 percent of respondents in the PBS poll favored that approach, the vast majority wanting "abstinence plus" programs where the use of condoms and birth control are also explained.

The PBS poll also shows that just as most Americans have not embraced the conservative political agenda for sex education, they also do not accept a narrow view of "moral values." Although 22 percent of voters in the last presidential election cited "moral values" as the biggest concern in deciding their vote, the PBS poll reveals that most Americans define "moral values" quite broadly.

When asked to define “moral values,” the responses were as diversified as the population: personal values such as honesty and responsibility (36%); family values such as trying to protect children from sex and violence on television and the Internet (26%); social justice, such as preventing human rights abuses and discrimination (10%); social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage (10%); compassion or concern for the sick and needy (9%); all of the above (9%).

The PBS poll suggests that President Bush is not winning over the public on his "marriage promotion" programs. Only 18 percent of respondents said that the government should promote marriage while 82 percent felt that government should stay out of the marriage-promotion business. A surprising 72 percent of people living in "traditional" family relationships of husband-wife-children also expressed opposition to marriage-promotion programs.

Perhaps the politicians and political parties will get the message as they prepare for campaigns during next year's state and federal elections: government should stop catering to fringe elements of the population, narrow religious constituencies who want to use wedge social issues to divide Americans for their own political advantage.

The majority of Americans: want a broad definition of family, including benefits for domestic partners; feel that abortion and gay marriage are not top priorities in terms of a "moral values" agenda; think that sex education should be inclusive and not limited to an "abstinence only" approach; and believe that government should get out of the "marriage promotion" business.

Should we be surprised that Americans are so accepting of family diversity? Not really.

The traditional family of two spouses living together for a lifetime, with mom-at-home raising the kids and dad-at-work earning the wages, is now mostly a relic of the past. The new reality includes people staying single longer, dual-earner couples, single parents, domestic partners, divorce, and remarriage.  Also noteworthy is the fact that solo singles now outnumber husband-wife-child households.

Corporate executives seem to be embracing family diversity almost as fast as the American public itself is diversifying its living arrangements. If only the politicians would pull their heads out of the sand and take a look, perhaps they would lighten up a bit on the "traditional family values" propaganda and focus instead on the major issues Americans really care about -- health care, jobs, education, and world peace.

© Unmarried America 2005

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.