Economic Security for All Americans: How Can We Get There?

Benefits need to be uncoupled from marriage and employment, two esteemed scholars argue

Bella DePaulo

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

What if we wanted all Americans to be economically secure — what would that take? In an important article, “Uncoupling,” just published in the Spring 2021 issue of the Arizona State Law Journal, professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone offer an answer: Benefits need to be uncoupled from marriage and employment.

One the most fundamental beliefs of people who advocate for unmarried equality is that no one should have to marry in order to have access to basic benefits and protections. In their historically grounded, carefully argued review, Cahn and Carbone make the case that a whole new legal framework is needed to protect all Americans from economic vulnerability.

The Route to Economic Security in the Industrial Age

In the industrial era, married men were paid a “family wage,” which was supposed to be enough to support a family. In 1914, Henry Ford paid his married male workers twice the typical rate at the time. Cahn and Carbone include a telling quote from him, explaining why he paid married men double: “The man does the work in the shop, but his wife does the work in the home. The shop must pay them both.” Too bad, single men! But they weren’t the only ones paid less; married men did not get the extra money, either, if their wives worked outside of the home.

Women rarely got paid the family wage, though Ford did include some women who were single and providing for a family. The vast majority of women were supposed to get their economic needs met through marriage. If their husband got paid a family wage, then they were covered and so were the kids. According to the “separate spheres” ideology, it was fine for the men to be the ones in the paid workforce; the women had their own sphere, the domestic one.

Even for those who were married, the family wage did not protect against all possible eventualities that could undermine economic security. People who were elderly, disabled, ill, or widowed, for example, would still need financial support. In 1935, the Federal Social Security Act was passed. That gave employees old-age…

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Bella DePaulo

“America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience,” according to the Atlantic. SINGLE AT HEART book coming on Dec 5, 2023. www.belladepaulo.com