Just when you think they can’t get more extreme and ridiculous, Republicans will come up with something new that simply astonishes. A Michigan law enacted in 1931 makes it a crime for unmarried couples to live together. As reported by Craig Mauger, writing for the Detroit News, only Michigan and Mississippi still have a law on the books that criminalizes cohabitation between unwed couples. Michigan’s law (which, it must be noted, is not generally enforced) makes such cohabitation punishable by up to a year in prison for the offending couple, along with a $1,000 fine. (In their wisdom, the long-dead proponents of the Michigan law included a provision stipulating that it could not be enforced after one year from “the time the offense was discovered.”)
Of course, what this law really sought to prevent (in 1931) was not the simple act of cohabitation, but the implication that some sort of sexual hanky-panky might ensue from the proximity of such couples in the same general living space. To its credit, the majority of the Michigan state Senate finally decided, after 92 years of thinking carefully about it, that the law was a bit out of date.
Half of Michigan’s Republican state senators, however, disagreed.
As explained by Jordyn Hermani, writing for Michigan Live:
Senate Bill 56 strikes from Michigan law the idea that an unmarried man and woman living together are inherently committing lewd and lascivious behavior. Under that 1931 law, a couple found guilty could be jailed for no more than a year or fined up to $1,000.
As Hermani reports, before the Bill’s 29-9 passage in the Michigan Senate, with majority Democratic support and half of the Republican complement in opposition, two of those nine Michigan Republicans who opposed it, Sens. Thomas Albert and Ed McBroom, rose to passionately defend the law, saying it was really all about the children.
“This type of family structure lends itself to instability and is not the optimal environment for raising children,” Sen. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said. “The problem with this reform is that it fails to recognize the secondary effects. ... This is a policy I cannot get behind, because there is clear and overwhelming evidence to show that it is better for children to be in a household with married parents.”
But repealing the 1931 law criminalizing cohabitation is not really about children; rather, it’s about providing tax relief to unmarried couples who might need to claim the other as a dependent. As Democratic Sen. Stephanie Chang, who sponsored the bill removing the criminal penalties for “cohabiting” couples, explains on her website:
The IRS tax code, Section 152(f)(3), states, “An individual shall not be treated as a member of the taxpayer’s household if at any time during the taxable year of the taxpayer the relationship between such individual and the taxpayer is in violation of local law.” Because of Michigan’s “lewd and lascivious” provision in law, cohabitating couples are not only violating the law, but they cannot qualify as a dependent.
Albert acknowledged this in his speech in opposition to the bill.
“Federal law prevents taxpayers from claiming some dependents if their relationship violates state law,” Albert said. “The bill before us today would clear the way for two unmarried individuals living together to meet dependency requirements and claim those tax benefits.”
So the real objection is that allowing unmarried couples who have dependents (such as their partners) to claim tax benefits because of their status is somehow a bad thing. Never mind that those tax benefits may—and probably will—help the unmarried couple raise children, should they choose to have them.
As Mauger reports, Chang noted that this was exactly her intent:
"This law will help some individuals in our state by reducing their tax burden," said Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, the bill's sponsor. "It will place unmarried Michigan taxpayers on equal footing with taxpayers in almost every other state."
Yes, children of cohabiting (but unmarried) couples tend to fare worse than children of their married counterparts. That’s because, as explained by the U.S. Census Bureau, cohabiting couples tend to make less money than married couples, and may (for a number of reasons) not have intended to have children in the first place.
Research has shown that children living with cohabiting parents may fare worse on a variety of outcomes than those living with married parents, likely because cohabiting couples have historically earned less money and had lower levels of educational attainment than married couples.
By permitting unmarried couples to “legally” declare their partners as dependents, the change in Michigan’s obsolete law logically provides for a better outcome for those couples’ children (should they choose to have them) in Michigan as opposed to retaining the provision “criminalizing” the couples’ behavior, which prevents that.
As a study by the Brookings Institute comparing child outcomes between married and unmarried couples suggests:
Far better, then, to promote the ingredients of family stability, many of which are associated with marriage, and in particular intended childbearing, more education, and higher family incomes, rather than marriage itself. Boosting educational attainment, especially among young women, has a direct influence on their ability to start their families more successfully. Higher tax credits and higher minimum wages would boost incomes among cohabiting and single-parent homes.
Most importantly, reducing rates of unintended pregnancies and births would ensure that more parents were prepared for the responsibilities and rigors of parenthood.
But arguing that such an antiquated (and now utterly nonsensical) law should be kept on the books simply to preserve the tax burden it imposes on unmarried couples who may or may not decide to have children is not only a fallacy, but a self-destructive proposition. On top of its obvious inapplicability to modern, 21st century life, it’s tantamount to admitting that preserving the status quo is not really about “children,” but about forcing people to do something they, for whatever reason, do not feel it is in their interests to do. For conservatives, that is apparently intolerable.
As Maurer reports, one Republican—McBroom, who opposed Chang’s bill—admitted as much:
“This bill is very representative of where we are as a nation and as a culture," McBroom said.
Yes, it is. And in a nutshell, that illustrates the difference between progressives and conservatives. Progressives understand that changing social mores also implies changing economic outcomes. If that doesn’t happen, people are forced to suffer consequences that they shouldn’t have to suffer. Conservatives would prefer to ignore the reality of change and impose their own belief systems on everyone else, regardless of the outcome, in the vain hope that society will somehow regress to accommodate their beliefs.
But that’s not how a functional society works, or how it should work. Rather, it adapts and adjusts, inexorably, to reflect reality. Whether conservatives like it or not.
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