Growing Number of Mississippians Are Living Together


The makeup of Mississippi households changed dramatically in the 1990s as more couples chose to live together rather than marry and the number of single parents surged.

The number of unmarried couples soared 123 percent between 1990 and 2000, although it still represents less than 2 percent of the state's total population of 2.8 million, according to new census figures.

Only Arkansas had faster growth in the category than Mississippi, which reported 47,000 unmarried couples.

Gulfport, the state's second-largest city, had the highest percentage of unmarried couples in 2000 for cities with 10,000 or more residents. Cohabiters made up 2.5 percent of the city's population.

Not far behind were Vicksburg, Greenville, Horn Lake and Jackson. ``I'm guessing that Mississippi and other states in the Bible Belt are playing catch up to the rest of the country,'' said Dorian Solot, executive director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project in Boston, a nonprofit organization for unmarried people. ``People who contact me from Mississippi say there's a stigma attached to living together, but those barriers are coming down,'' Solot said.

Nationally, the number of unmarried couples shot up 71 percent between 1990 and 2000, and the number of women raising children without fathers at home climbed 25 percent. Census officials said those increases were not unexpected considering the relatively high divorce rate and the fact that more young professionals are delaying marriage until later in life.

``I think it's more socially acceptable for women not to get remarried when they get divorced the first time,'' said Gail Nicholson, a Gulfport lawyer who handles a large number of divorces. ``I guess they decide the man's not worth the trouble.'' Nicholson's point reflects the increasing number of single mothers in Mississippi. The number of single moms jumped from 85,174 in 1990 to 106,203 last year, a 25 percent increase.

At the same time, the number of single dads climbed from 13,709 to 22,729, a 66 percent jump. Meanwhile, the number of married couples in Mississippi grew by only 4.5 percent in the past decade.

``It doesn't surprise me that unmarried partners make up a growing portion of the family landscape in Mississippi,'' said Marshall Miller, co-founder of the Alternatives to Marriage Project. ``Cohabitation isn't limited to young people in New York and California anymore. We're parents, baby boomers, senior citizens and the couple next door in every town in America.''

Lee Corlew, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Jackson, considers the changes taking place in Mississippi's homes a trend the state would be better off bucking. ``I think it says something about the break up of the family,'' Corlew said. ``The economy has something to do with it, but there's not the commitment like there was in the past. ``Everyone wants instant gratification. There is so little out there to encourage Judeo-Christian principles.''

The reality, said Solot, is the changing family structure will force politicians to focus more attention on issues affecting singles and those people living together, such as domestic-partner benefits. Said Solot, ``As the number of unmarried partners increases, it's more important than ever for policy-makers to realize we're part of their constituencies.''