More Americans are single than in the past, with 28% living alone in 2021 compared to just 13% in 1960, according to the Census Bureau. However, as Anne Helen Petersen writes in Vox, living as a single person in the United States comes at a tremendous economic cost because policies and programs like the tax code and Social Security were written under the assumption that Americans would get and stay married.
Marketplace’s Reema Khrais spoke with Petersen about how being single affects people’s economic lives. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Reema Khrais: So, you write that even though there are more Americans who are single today, there is an underlying hostility toward them. Big picture, what do you mean by that?
Anne Helen Petersen: So the way I’m thinking about hostility is less about like someone yelling at you about being single, and more about like when we talk about a hostile climate environment — so like the Arctic, right? Or the desert. In those environments, it is hostile for life to thrive. There have to be significant adaptations in order for whatever life that does live there to survive. And most things do not survive. That is kind of how I think about what it takes to be single in the United States.
Khrais: I see. And can you just give more examples of why single life can be so expensive?
Petersen: Any single person will be able to rattle these things out to you. Some of it is just the cost of paying for every single thing for your house on your own. Like you need to buy a new vacuum, that is your cost burden and yours alone. But it’s also a time tax. And what I mean by that is that anytime something needs to be done in your home, you know, that is borne by you alone. And if time is money, like that’s a very utilitarian way of thinking about this, but single people pay more of that tax. I think sometimes people are like, “Well, that’s your decision, right? You get all the freedoms of being single, and that is the price that you pay.” But I think we also have a paucity of imagination when it comes to thinking of different ways that we can arrange life — things like the social safety net, things like the way we organize health insurance, the way that we think about retirement — so that it doesn’t penalize single people.
Khrais: There was one stat that you mentioned in your article that just blew my mind. It was that an unmarried woman making around $40,000, and this is back in 2010, could stand to pay almost half a million dollars more over her lifetime than a married woman, which is wild. What?
Petersen: Right. So this was a scenario that was run by two authors who were writing for the Atlantic, and they put together all of the accumulated costs and also just the ways in which people who are single, like, the amount of taxes that they pay and also the way that their Social Security benefit works, and taking into account that persistent wage gap as well. And that number was that overall calculation, which seems so striking, right? Like, if you said to someone, “OK, here are the two choices in your life: You can pay this many million dollars more to be single or you can be married.” Essentially, that is the decision that we put forth to people. We just don’t put it in such stark terms.
Khrais: And so are you hopeful that things will change? That policy, might at some point in the near future, become less centered around the assumption that we’re married?
Petersen: I mean, here’s the thing. There are things in this country that are incredibly popular, that we still cannot push through to become policy. I think that a lot of people — a lot of white conservative people in particular — still believe that the best thing for everyone is if everyone is married and has children and lives in a home of their own. But that’s not a sustainable way forward. Nearly 40% of the population is either single or are a single parent, and the ways in which people are falling through these social safety nets evidences that we need this sort of change. So my hope is that we can push for more imagination for how to create these systems of care for one another.