The language of “working families” is costly — and not just to the millions of people who are marginalized by it
Do you think that people in the U.S. are impossibly polarized? Not when it comes to the focus of their fawning and their concern. On the political left and right, at all levels of government, in the media, the marketplace, the workplace, the medical establishment, in places of worship, in popular culture, and in every other nook and cranny of our everyday lives, everyone is so very concerned about couples and families. Especially “working families.”
That’s just wrong. Family talk is misguided, inaccurate, exclusionary, and insulting. Wittingly or not, people who express their concern only about couples and families are alienating solo single people. When political candidates behave in such foolishly self-defeating ways, huge numbers of their single constituents may be tempted to ignore them in return when it comes time to vote.
I will have a lot to say about all of this, but in case you don’t have time right now to read all the way to the end, I’m going to put my call to action right here at the top.
Let’s Do Something. Here’s Something Simple that Could Be Effective If It Catches On
Heather Steil, a U.S. Foreign Service Officer currently serving as Deputy Foreign Policy Advisor at CENTCOM, is fed up and she is not taking it anymore. Tweeting from her personal twitter account, she announced:
She started with this:
“I’m really worried about all the families that have been impacted.” — Florida @SenRickScott is visiting Pensacola as Sally strikes the region hard.
Here’s how she restated Senator Rick Scott’s comment:
“I’m really worried about all the singles that (sic) have been impacted.”
She has been continuing. No one is exempt from her educational efforts — political affiliation is irrelevant. She’s right about that — political candidates and leaders from all across the political spectrum need to speak to single people.
I encourage you to follow her, @hsteil, and retweet all the tweets in her ongoing series. I’m going to retweet them with a link to this article.
Here’s your guide to the rest of this article:
- A few examples of family talk
- What’s wrong with “working families” rhetoric?
- Do candidates focus on families because single people, and people with no kids, are less likely to vote?
- The number of solo single people is unlikely to decrease anytime soon
- It’s not that single people have no family
- Just ignore it?
- Some good news
A Few Examples of Family Talk
The very first article I ever published about single people was a 2004 op-ed in the New York Times, “Sex and the Single Voter,” about how single people were getting stereotyped and marginalized in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. Every election season since then has gotten me riled up again, but it is not as if singlism subsides in off-years. The pandemic seems to be a particularly special time for effusive and often exclusive expressions of concern for couples and families.
· The federal Coronavirus Response Act, created to expand sick leave when needed for reasons related to COVID-19, is called “Families First.” Is that a way of telling me, right in the title, that as a solo single, I’m a second-class citizen?
· One of my local papers published a story about an area food bank and its efforts to help those in need during the coronavirus outbreak. The caption of the picture published alongside the story explained where “families in need” could find information on receiving free groceries.
· At the Atlantic magazine, home of many myth-busting articles (including one of my own, challenging conventional wisdom about the loneliness of single people and people living alone), I was crestfallen to find this: “A global pandemic is a planet-size pause button for public life. The right stimulus ought to press a similarly large pause button to freeze in place the financial well-being of U.S. families and businesses.” So only the financial well-being of families and businesses matter? All those solo single people, with no spouse to provide a back-up income if theirs disappears — they should just suck it up?
The rhetoric of “working families” is particularly egregious — and widespread and relentless. I started collecting examples during primary season. Here are a few:
On the White House website, an article about tax cuts says, “In addition to relief for working families, tax reform is essential to restoring America’s economic dominance.”
Leader Mitch McConnell
In remarks on the Senate floor, Leader McConnell said that Republicans offer “more prosperity, more opportunity, more raises and bonuses for working families.”
Senator Bernie Sanders
Senator Elizabeth Warren
In a January 14, 2019 tweet, Senator Warren said: “24 days into the #TrumpShutdown and over 800,000 federal employees have already missed 1 paycheck. How many more before Republicans stop crushing working families and re-open the government? Time to end this.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi
In a January 9, 2019 tweet, Speaker Pelosi said: “House Democrats just voted to ensure that this irresponsible #TrumpShutdown doesn’t block hardworking families from receiving their tax refunds in full & on time. The @SenateGOP must pass this legislation or be fully complicit in the cruelty of this shutdown.”
Working Families (political party)
There is even a political party called Working Families. They describe themselves as “the progressive party, fighting to build an America that works for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected.”
What’s Wrong with “Working Families” Rhetoric?
I have at least three problems with talk about “working families.
First, the term is ridiculous. Employers do not hire families; they hire workers. Many family members cannot legally be hired, and they would do an awful job if they were hired. Two-year-old’s, for example, are notoriously terrible employees.
Second, and most importantly, the language of “working families” excludes far too many people who do not deserve to be treated as though they do not exist or are of no significance. The term “working families” excludes most of the 35.7 million people who live alone. If you think that married couples without kids don’t count as families, then “working families” excludes another 28.1 million households (56.2 million people), plus all of the unmarried couples without children. Untold numbers of chosen families that do not include kids are excluded, too.
Political leaders should keep something in mind: All of these people who are marginalized and excluded by the language of “working families” are potential voters. Maybe they will be more inclined to take seriously those candidates and representatives who acknowledge their existence.
Changing the language is straightforward. For example, in a February 28, 2019 tweet, Governor Inslee said, “When employers work with unions to lift the bar for training, wages, safety and professional development, they improve the lives of all working families in WA state.” He could have instead made a small but significant change: “When employers work with unions to lift the bar for training, wages, safety and professional development, they improve the lives of all workers in WA state.”
The term “working families” seems especially misplaced when used by the Working Families party, because they fashion themselves as “the progressive party, fighting to build an America that works for everyone.” But the language of “working families” does not include everyone. It probably excludes more than 100 million American workers.
My third objection to the language of “working families” is this: Even apart from issues of the exclusion of solo single people or couples or families who do not have children, the term “working families” makes me suspicious. I worry that it is a way of valorizing some families (the ones who work) and shaming others (the ones who don’t).
People can be out of the workforce for a whole host of perfectly legitimate reasons. They may be disabled or seriously ill. They may be making every effort to find a job but not (yet) succeeding. They may be retired. Why are those people less worthy of the caring and concern of our political leaders? Why should they be excluded from our laws and policies?
The phrase “working families” smacks of the “family values” crowd, the ideologues who value only those people who lead their adult lives in the prescribed ways — get married (and it had better be a “1 man + 1 woman” marriage), then have kids (not before, or you are violating the “success sequence,” and therefore, they insist, you and your kids will be doomed to failure), then stay married, then have grandkids. But the people and organizations that use the language of “working families” are not just from one end of the political spectrum. Even self-proclaimed progressives are doing it.
Do Candidates Focus on Families Because Single People, and People with No Kids, Are Less Likely to Vote?
If, by using the term “working families,” our political leaders were signaling their special concern for people who are married over those who are not married, they could perhaps point to differential rates of voting to justify it. Married people do typically vote at higher rates than people who are not married.
That’s not good enough for me. I don’t think there is any justification for ignoring any potential voters. And anyway, it is possible that the causality goes in the other direction: single people vote less often because they are marginalized by candidates.
The “families” part of the “working families” term seems to underscore the “for the children” mantra. In that regard, there is a real irony to that focus. As Nicholas Wolfinger and Raymond Wolfinger showed in their analyses of the data from the 2000 Presidential election, people who have children under the age of 18 in their households are less likely to vote than people who do not have young children in their homes.
% of people who voted, 2000 Presidential election
70 percent: Married with children
78 percent: Married with no children
62 percent: Widowed with children
66 percent: Widowed with no children
56 percent: Divorced with children
61 percent: Divorced with no children
45 percent: Separated with children
56 percent: Separated with no children
44 percent: Never married with children
52 percent: Never married with no children
People of different marital and parental statuses differ in many ways other than whether they are married or parents. Some of those ways are relevant to voting and may help explain the different rates of voting. For example, older people consistently vote at higher rates than younger people. People who have never been married tend to be younger than married people, so maybe their lower rates of voting can be explained in part by their younger ages.
Wolfinger and Wolfinger conducted analyses that controlled for age, mobility, education, sex, employment, income and race. (That means that they compared people of different marital and parental statuses who were similar in those ways — for example, they compared married and never-married people of the same age.)
In the analyses that controlled for all those factors, the rates of voting among lifelong single people went way up, to 68%. The rate of voting was the same, 68%, for the never-married people who did and did not have kids. The currently married people still had higher rates of voting than the never-married (about 73.5%), but not by much.
The Number of Solo Single People Is Unlikely to Decrease Anytime Soon
To mark the beginning of Unmarried and Single Americans Week (September 20–26, 2020), I reported on the most recent statistics on the number of single people in the United States. There are now more than 130 million adults, 18 and older, who are divorced, separated, or widowed, or have never been married. Most of them — nearly 62 percent — are lifelong single people. (More details are here.)
What’s more, those numbers are unlikely to decline in the future. A survey conducted in 2019 by the Pew Research Center made the stunning discovery that among solo single people, half of them are uninterested in a romantic relationship or even a date!
I’m focusing in this article on the U.S., but the rise of single people is a global phenomenon. A United Nations report has shown that in countries all around the world, rates of marriage are declining and the number of people staying single is growing.
It’s Not that Single People Have No Family
I’m not arguing that solo single people have no family. We all have parents or guardians, and sometimes siblings and cousins and other relatives, too (though for some, all those people are deceased or have no place in their lives). Many of us also have our “families of choice,” the people we regard as family, even if they don’t meet the typical definition.
The important point is that sometimes our families don’t qualify. As another single person who lives alone quipped, it is not as if she can get the discounted “family plan” phone rates.
Just Ignore It?
Talk matters. Conversations, announcements, and policies that use the language of family marginalize solo single people.
Not so very long ago, the pronoun “he” was used routinely to refer to all people, including women. No serious publication does that anymore. The same practice should be adopted with regard to family talk; it should no longer be permissible to talk only about families if you mean to include solo single people, too.
As is true of just about every example of singlism I’ve ever discussed, there are those who dismiss my concerns. “What’s the big deal about family talk?” they ask. “Just mentally translate ‘family’ into ‘people’ or ‘household,’” they tell me. And they are right. I could do that. But I shouldn’t have to. Just like women no longer have to mentally translate “men” to mean “men and women.”
Some Good News
I’m hoping and working for positive change, so I’m attuned to encouraging examples as well as the exasperating ones. And, happily, there are some. Here are two.
- In an interview on CNN this month (September 2020), Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee and California Senator Kamala Harris said, “working PEOPLE are suffering.” (Emphasis is mine.) She had used some “working families” rhetoric during the primaries, so this was most welcome.
2. Remember the Coronavirus Response Act? The “Families First” name for it was exclusionary, but remarkably, the policy was not. Professor Joan DelFattore took a close look at it and found this:
“Despite its unpromising title, the bill takes a giant step toward inclusiveness by providing paid sick leave not only for employees confined by COVID-19 but also for those “caring for an individual who is subject to governmental or self-quarantine.”
“The word “individual” is groundbreaking because this is the first federal legislation that provides time off to care for people who are not close relatives.”
[Want to learn more? Take a look at this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life. Watch my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.” Check out my website. Disclosure: Links to books may include affiliate links. Finally, my “Single at Heart” blog that I have been writing for Psych Central since 2011 is ending in 2020; I am updating many of those posts and moving them to this blog on Medium.]