May 23, 2006

'Show Me' Style Provincialism - Unmarried Cohabitation? Come on...

The state that has brought us the Dred Scott decision, Busch beer, a dog museum, the Arch, and one of the highest levels of racial segregation in the country has moved into the provincial domestic realm via the city of Black Jack's cohabitation law, which made the news recently when a family that bought a home there was legally prohibited from living in it because the parents were not married. The city has an ordinance that prohibits over three people from living together unless they are related by marriage, blood or adoption. This is not-so-subtle absence of toleration for diversity in family forms. The City Council refused to change the law, so now the parents and kids are in the limelight and a pickle. Why, if they refuse to either get married or leave town they'll have to pay a $500 a day fine. Imagine that! When Black Jack means business there is no matter too small, large or moral or immoral enough for them to miss--something like LiveJournal excluding pictures of breastfeeding women from their pages.

Good old Missouri, the way I left it in 1989, a little behind our changing times. Even the late Dear Abby gave up on this issue decades ago. However, you don't have to go far to find more examples of the criminalization of cohabitation. Although some local jurisdictions have such restrictions, usually in rural areas, most examples that come to mind are a in a majority of states, including those in the Pacific region, which have laws or rules on the books that forbid probationers or parolees from living together unmarried. It seems to be an assumption that lack of legal marriage is unstable, immoral or an invitation to disobey rules (so-called "open or notorious cohabitation"). The criminal justice machinery in this sense is a big-time repository of conservative, sometimes religious values or residues, which define the criminal justice response as a step backward to the past rather than one that looks forward to societal integration.

The demographics of cohabitation in the U.S. and the world are worthy of note. The Bureau of the Census has shown that over the past 30+ years living together unmarried is a rapidly growing family form--most recently, accounting for at least four percent of all American households--two-fifths of which have children under eighteen years of age. It is in part a minor variation in the assortive mating process that describes us as humans. Perhaps the biggest increase in cohabitation, however, has developed among older people--who are also probably less afraid to admit their living arrangements to census workers. Moreover, in some areas of the world cohabitation levels are much, much higher--the Caribbean or Northwest Europe come to mind. Among demographers the study of cohabitation is sometimes tied to issues surrounding illegitimacy; the writings of the late Kingsley Davis are especially interesting to read on this issue. Others center on whether cohabitaiton is a threat to the institution of marriage or a precursor to it. These are interesting issues to many college students.

Posted by jackson at May 23, 2006 01:58 PM