Premium Marriage

Only One Family Form is More Equal Than Others

The marriage market is changing, reports the Wall Street Journal.

In a recent article, WSJ authors report on a divide that many others have noted in recent years: While the most affluent of Americans are still likely to get married, those in the middle class are becoming less so.[i] The WSJ story reports, “The middle three-fifths of U.S. earners have experienced the sharpest declines in marriage rates over the past four decades compared with people at the bottom of the income ladder and those at the top.”

And while actions have diverged, intentions remain unchanged: About 75 percent of young Americans in an ongoing University of Michigan study have reported every year since 1976 that they expect to marry at some point in their lives. Why the gap? Most of these middle-income Americans report money as the top reason they haven’t married. Instead of seeing marriage as one rung on the ladder to adulthood and security, more and more Americans are instead viewing it as the pinnacle, the thing they do after they’ve achieved stable careers and financial security.

“The meaning of marriage has changed,” Susan L. Brown of Bowling Green State University told the WSJ. “It’s almost like a luxury good that’s attainable only by the people who have the highest resources in society.”

This finding is in line with other recent research. In his 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America, Charles Murray develops this theme more fully.[ii] While in the past a successful businessman may marry his secretary or his high school sweetheart, that man is now increasingly likely to marry an equally successful female peer that he met at college, or a partner at his firm. Marriage has become more segregated, with the wealthy and highly educated marrying people of their own status, and the economically disadvantaged or the working classes less likely to marry altogether. The result, argues Murray, is a nation in which inequality of all kinds is increasing, and the gap between the haves and have-nots is becoming wider.

What many Americans are missing is the fact that marriage actually bolsters finances. The WSJ story reports, “Among people ages 25 to 34, the median wealth of married couples is four times that of couples who live together but aren’t married.” Part of this at least is due to what’s called the marriage wage premium, or simply the marriage premium. For a long, long time, researchers have noticed that men, in particular, make more money when they marry. Other things aside, married men earn anywhere from 10% to 40% more than their identical, non-married peers.[iii] Selection is responsible for some of this wage increase—men who are more likely to earn higher wages are also more likely to marry. But according to an Institute for Family Studies research brief, “the most sophisticated recent research suggests that marriage itself increases the earning power of men on the order of 10 to 24 percent.”[iv]

Household specialization, in which men focus on earning tasks and women take over household and caring tasks, has also been posited as another route to married men’s financial success.

A recent study demonstrated that although specialization is indeed a contributing factor, it cannot account for the entirety of the marriage premium.[v] Something about marriage itself seems to increase men’s earning potential. Staying married is good for finances, too. The Institute for Family Studies report continues, “the typical fiftysomething married man has three times the assets of his unmarried peer, about $167,000 compared to less than $49,000.”

And what about women? Reports here are mixed, with some finding a marriage penalty, but others finding that marriage itself is not significantly associated with wages either positively or negatively. An interesting recent study sheds light on this question by focusing on millennials (most previous studies focused on Baby Boomers). This study found that in both female-breadwinner households and dual-earner households, millennial women also enjoyed a marriage premium—a break from previous generations.[vi]

The takeaway? Instead of being seen as the crown achievement of an already-successful life, marriage may be more beneficially viewed as a crucial step in the achievement pattern. While the affluent say that all family forms are equal and vote for policymakers who endorse that view, they practice something very different from what they preach: their marriages are far more stable than those of lower-income Americans. If the elite really want to help the American working classes, they will instead begin discussing the importance of marriage and encouraging Americans to pursue it.

 

[i] Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, “Affluent Americans Still Say ‘I Do.’ More in the Middle Class Don’t,” Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2020.

[ii] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012).

[iii] W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger, “Men and Marriage: Debunking the Ball and Chain Myth,” Institute for Family Studies, 2017, available at https://ifstudies.org/ifs-admin/resources/men-and-marriage-research-brief.pdf.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Alexandra Killewald and Margaret Gough, “Does Specialization Explain Marriage Penalties and Premiums?” American Sociological Review 78.3 [2013]: 477-502

[vi] “Household Specialization, Millennials, and the Marriage Premium,” the Editors, Institute for Family Studies, August 14, 2017, available at https://ifstudies.org/blog/household-specialization-millennials-and-the-marriage-premium.

is the managing editor of the Howard Center's quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.

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