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Lessons From America's First Labor Day and the Rise in Women Who Live Alone

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In the first Labor Day celebration in American history, some 12,000 tradesmen paraded through the streets of New York City. The cigar makers, blacksmiths and bricklayers (all men) carried silk banners calling for an eight-hour workday, an end to child labor and abolishment of New York's shameful tenements. After years of struggle, they were victorious.

I was reminded of the 1882 Labor Day parade when the U.S. Census Bureau last week released data on the current makeup of America's families. Beyond the obvious fact that women today comprise about half of the U.S. work force, changes to the American family have been dramatic. My two big takeaways from the report are that more adults (especially women) are living alone than ever before and that the economic recession has had a devastating effect on America's unmarried women.

Living Alone the New Normal
In 1970, only 17 percent of U.S. households contained "singleton" men and women getting by without spouses, children, parents or unrelated roommates. Today, more than a quarter of all households meet this definition. Women living alone today account for 15 percent of all U.S. households, compared to just 5.6 percent in 1970. (I can just imagine how small that number would have been in 1882.) Meanwhile, the portion of American households made up of married couples with children under 18 fell in half from 40 percent in 1970 to just 20 percent today. "Living alone has become more widespread as the rising number of one-person households offset the shrinking number of married households with children," the Census Bureau reported. "The increase in living alone and the decline in married house -- holds reflect a rising age at first marriage for men and women."

This living-alone phenomenon comes as no surprise to the Voter Participation Center, the sister group to the Women's Voices. Women Vote Action Fund. For the past decade, we've been tracking the rising political and demographic importance of unmarried women (never married, separated, divorced or widowed.) For all the talk of the gender gap in American politics, the truth is that the marriage gap is even more profound. In 2012, unmarried women supported President Obama over Mitt Romney by 36 percentage points, a massive margin that helped stem other losses. Even though Obama lost the votes of married women by 7 points in 2012, he made up for it with his overwhelming support among unmarried women. The point is that, as the ranks of unmarried women and unmarried mothers increase and continue to change our definition of the "typical American family," we need to pay attention to their issues -- and respect their growing political influence.

Unmarried Mothers Devastated by the Recession
The Census Bureau also made clear that unmarried women and their children bore the brunt of the effects of the economic recession. Although nine percent of married families were living below the poverty line and receiving food stamps as of 2012, the proportion among single-mother households was four times greater. A depressing 38.8 percent of all unmarried mothers are currently living in poverty and receiving government-provided food stamps to get by, the data show, and a third of all unmarried American mothers are unemployed.

Although the recession officially ended in 2009, wages remain stagnant, income inequality is soaring and unmarried women continue to suffer. From 2007 to 2012, the number of single moms who received food stamps increased from 28 percent to 39 percent. Poverty is now rampant for the children of single-parent families. Nearly half of the 17.9 million American children who live with their mother only are now living in poverty -- providing a compelling rationale to raise the minimum wage so that unmarried mothers can make ends meet for their families.

Improving the Lives of Vulnerable American Workers Today
As we celebrate Labor Day today, we should reflect on how far we've come as a nation since 1882. And yet how far we need to go to keep improving the lives of vulnerable American workers. That's particularly true of our growing labor force of unmarried mothers, who are just barely managing to get by.

Page Gardner is President and Founder of the Voter Participation Center. Follow VPC on Twitter @Voter Center.