Zoning, defining “family,” and exclusion

Zoning is a tool municipalities can use to control what kind of developments – and by extension, what kinds of people – can be in their community. A recent law review article looks at how zoning guidelines extend to defining families for the purposes of who can live in a residential unit:

Today, when courts ask “what makes a family?” they often look beyond blood, marriage, and adoption to see if people have made other meaningful, familial commitments that qualify for the obligations and benefits that family law provides. As functional family law developed, cohabitation became one of the most important factors, if not the determining factor, in these kinds of cases. The problem is that zoning laws often prevent these same functional families from living together in the first place. Through this underlying connection to zoning, functional developments in family law are much more vulnerable than they appear.

“Formal family” regulations in zoning are pervasive, and come with the imprimatur of the nation’s highest court. In the 1974 case Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that municipalities can legally differentiate between related and unrelated families. In the intervening years, courts in 14 states have ruled that “formal-family” zoning is permitted by state constitutions, and the issue remains undecided in an additional 30 states. Only four state courts, in New Jersey, California, Michigan, and New York, have refused to sanction this form of discrimination, and lawmakers in Iowa recently became the first legislators to ban it. The Supreme Court has only revisited the issue once, in 1978, to clarify that the zoning definition of family cannot prevent blood relatives from living together…

The good news is that formal family zoning is of surprisingly recent vintage. There is a long history of functional family approaches to zoning in American jurisprudence, dating back to the early 20th century advent of zoning law. The first zoning ordinances didn’t define “family,” at all, and throughout the first 50 years of their operation, courts often ruled that functional families of all kinds—from gay couples and religious adherents to cult followers and sororities—could live together in peace. Even as “blood, marriage, or adoption” ordinances became more common, courts continued to rule that functional families fell within their wide interpretive ambit….

Formal family zoning is a familiar song—the same legal mechanisms that famously reinforced housing discrimination on the basis of race, also discriminate against families that vary from the nuclear ideal of a heterosexual couple raising their biological children. There is also compelling evidence that low-density zoning, like formal family ordinances, is a significant driver of racial and class segregation. In short, formal family zoning discriminates against non-normative families, but it also reinforces the racial and economic segregation effects of low-density zoning in general.

When they want to be, communities can be creative in developing zoning and other mechanisms that bring in the kind of residents and businesses that they feel fits their community (often along the lines of race and class).

I wonder how these family guidelines are related to zoning restrictions on overcrowding and the number of people allowed in dwellings. Court cases have dealt with this and it seems like the conditions could be similar at times to guidelines against functional families.

If functional families are not as desirable for some communities, perhaps another trend in households is more to their liking: the rise in single-person households. On one hand, suburban housing can be too big and not provide certain amenities like walkable places and public transportation. On the other hand, people in single-person households may use fewer public services and may be willing to purchase smaller, newer units (many suburbs want to build and sell condos and townhomes near downtowns or community focal points). Or, does zoning truly privilege the formal nuclear family in ways that do not extend to any other kinds of household configurations?

News story suggests 40% is “Almost Half”

A Bloomberg story looks at the rise in birth in the United States outside of marriage and has this headline:

Almost Half of U.S. Births Happen Outside Marriage, Signaling Cultural Shift

And then the story quickly gets to the data:

Forty percent of all births in the U.S. now occur outside of wedlock, up from 10 percent in 1970, according to an annual report released on Wednesday by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the largest international provider of sexual and reproductive health services. That number is even higher in the European Union.

Almost Half of U.S. Births Happen Outside Marriage, Signaling Cultural Shift

There is no doubt that this is significant trend over nearly 50 years. One expert sums this up toward the end of the story:

The traditional progression of Western life “has been reversed,” said John Santelli, a professor in population, family health and pediatrics at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Cohabiting partners are having children before getting married. That’s a long-term trend across developing nations.”

Yet, the headline oversells the change. A move from 10% of births to 40% of births is large. But, is 40% nearly 50%? When I hear almost half, I would expect a number between 45% and 49.99%. Claiming 40% is nearly half is going a little too far.

I think the reading public would better served by either using the 40% figure or saying “Two-Fifths.” Or, perhaps the headline might speak to the 30% jump in nearly 50 years.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor issue. The rest of the story does a nice job presenting the data and discussing what is behind the change. But, this is a headline dominated age – you have to catch those eyes scrolling quickly on their phones – and this headline goes a bit too far.

Divorce down, marriage down, telling a full story

Recent sociological work highlights how looking past the initial findings – divorce rates are down in America – reveals a more complicated reality:

In the past 10 years, the percentage of American marriages that end in divorce has fallen, and in a new paper, the University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen quantified the drop-off: Between 2008 and 2016, the divorce rate declined by 18 percent overall…

The point he was making was that people with college degrees are now more likely to get married than those who have no more than a high-school education. And the key to understanding the declining divorce rate, Cherlin says, is that it is “going down some for everybody,” but “the decline has been steepest for the college graduates.”

The reason that’s the case is that college graduates tend to wait longer to get married as they focus on their career. And they tend to have the financial independence to postpone marriage until they’re more confident it will work. This has translated to lower rates of divorce: “If you’re older, you’re more mature … you probably have a better job, and those things make it less likely that you’ll get into arguments with your spouse,” Cherlin says…

Chen connects this trend to the decline of well-paying jobs for those without college degrees, which, he argues, makes it harder to form more stable relationships. Indeed, Cohen writes in his paper that marriage is “an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.” The state of it today is both a reflection of the opportunities unlocked by a college degree and a force that, by allowing couples to pool their incomes, itself widens economic gaps.

It would be interesting to see how many of those who might celebrate the finding that divorce rates are going down also discuss the reasons linked to financial stability, education levels, and inequality.

Take more conservative Christian churches as a possible example. Evangelical Protestants are often proudly in favor of marriage (between a man and a woman). They work hard to provide programs for families as well as classes and sermons about marriage and family life. They would generally be opposed to divorce or at least view it as less than ideal. But, having conversations about how marriage is less attainable for some Americans or the evolving idea that one needs to be financially independent before marrying might be less common. How often do topics of social class and inequality come up from the front in many congregations? Or, discussions could turn to why Americans do not make correct individual choices rather than focusing on social pressures and structures (financial independence, it is more acceptable to cohabit) that influence all Americans (including conservative Christians). Ultimately, the findings may not be that good for evangelicals: divorce is down because Americans are getting married less and cohabiting more. If they want to encourage more marriage, they would have to respond to these larger social forces at work.

Census income figures misreported based on gender norms

The Census measures numerous important features of American life. Yet, accurate measurement is difficult. A new report suggests reported income can not be the most truthful when women make more money than their husbands:

Researchers found that when wives are the bigger breadwinners, husbands report making an average of 2.9 percent more than what’s in their tax filings. Meanwhile, women who make more than their husbands report earning 1.5 percent less than their actual income…

So why does this phenomenon happen? Researchers say they suspect societal expectations about the roles each person plays in a marriage could be a main factor.

“When married couples . . . violate the norm that husbands outearn their wives, the survey respondents reporting the couples’ earnings appear to minimize the violation by inflating the earnings of the lower-earning husbands and deflating the earnings of the higher-earning wives,” researchers wrote in their findings.

If the misreporting is due to gender norms, might we expect this to go away as more women earn more money? Already, “In about one out of four couples surveyed, wives made more money than their husbands.” Give this a few decades and this misreporting might disappear.

On the other hand, social norms can be last a long time even after society has changed quite a bit from when the social norm arose. If the misreporting continues or even increases, it would be interesting to see how the Census and other surveyors adjust their figures.

The tipping point income for men getting married may be $40,000

Amidst more Americans living alone, here is some discussion regarding at what income point men are more or less likely to be married:

Instead, analysts said, the decline in both marriage and partnerships is likely a result of the declining ability of men to earn a salary large enough to sustain a family.

“All signs point to the growing fragility of the male wage earner,” said Cheryl Russell, a demographer and editorial director at the New Strategist Press. “The demographic segments most likely to be living without a partner are the ones in which men are struggling the most — young adults, the less educated, Hispanics, and blacks.”

Russell pointed to data that shows marriage rates increase for younger Americans in connection with salaries. Fewer than half of men between the ages of 30 and 34 who earn less than $40,000 a year are married. More than half of those who make more than $40,000 a year are married, including two-thirds of those who make between $75,000 and $100,000 a year…

The Pew data underscores the economic marriage gap: Adults who do not live with partners are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than those who have partners.

“Our surveys show us that one of the things that’s holding unmarried adults back from getting married is that they feel they’re not financially stable enough,” Parker said.

While there are likely additional reasons for this (one example: the development of the idea that marriage is about two economically stable people coming together), marriage in American is increasingly tied to social class.

American marriage increasingly related to social class

Continuing a trend of recent years, recent studies show that those getting married in the United States are more likely to be middle or upper class:

Currently, 26 percent of poor adults, 39 percent of working-class adults and 56 percent of middle- and upper-class adults are married, according to a research brief published today from two think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and Opportunity America. In 1970, about 82 percent of adults were married, and in 1990, about two-thirds were, with little difference based on class and education.

A big reason for the decline: Unemployed men are less likely to be seen as marriage material…

In reality, economics and culture both play a role, and influence each other, social scientists say. When well-paying jobs became scarce for less educated men, they became less likely to marry. As a result, the culture changed: Marriage was no longer the norm, and out-of-wedlock childbirth was accepted. Even if jobs returned, an increase in marriage wouldn’t necessarily immediately follow…

People with college degrees seem to operate with more of a long-term perspective, social scientists say. They are more likely to take on family responsibilities slowly, and they often benefit from parental resources to do so — like help paying for education, birth control or rent to live on their own. In turn, the young adults prioritize waiting to have children until they are more able to give their children similar opportunities.

I have had this thought when seeing middle and upper class couples that have dated or lived together for years: what is their purpose in getting married? Do they need the government (and occasionally religious) backing to their union or is this primarily about social status?

As I’ve written before, perhaps more and more Americans see living alone as the preferred way to live out their adults lives rather than marriage.

CNBC: owning a home may be “the new luxury item”

CNBC suggests the dream of owning a home is becoming less attainable:

Almost half of those people who don’t own a home said their financial situation is standing in the way, according to a report by Bankrate.com released Tuesday. Additionally, 29 percent said they can’t afford a down payment and 16 percent said their credit isn’t good enough to qualify for a mortgage…

“A lot of people could be feeling traumatized by what happened to the housing market and are counting themselves out,” she said…

These days, first-time homebuyers, who are primarily in their 30s, are spending a bigger chunk of their incomes to buy their first house — coughing up about 2.6 times their annual pay; in the 1970s, first-time homebuyers purchased homes that cost only about 1.7 times their yearly salary, according to Zillow.

Tighter lending standards and hefty down payments have further deterred some buyers.

Economic conditions and reasoning can go a long ways to determining who can access parts of the American Dream and when they may do so in life. This reminds me of other analyses I’ve seen in recent years suggesting the delayed age for marriage as well as a decline in marriage is also tied to economics: people want to be more financially secure before they marry. Similarly, buying a home is now being put off – not because Americans don’t want it but because they just aren’t set and the conditions have imposed particular restrictions.