Falling Marriage Rates Reveal Economic Fault Lines
By ANDREW L. YARROW
Will Valentine’s Day, always a popular moment for popping the question, see fewer marriage proposals this year than in generations past?
The age-old lesson about marriage that has been communicated by parents everywhere (two are stronger than one) is now brushing up against a 21st-century reality: The percentage of married households in the United States has fallen to a historic low.
Census data cited in a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center show that the number of married households fell to 50.5 percent in 2012 from a high of about 72 percent in 1960.
Among the less well educated, the number of married households has fallen even more. A 2011 study by Pew found that although 64 percent of college-educated Americans were married, fewer than 48 percent of those with some college or less were married. In 1960, the report found, the two groups were about equally likely to be married.
Louis Ulmer and Tamara Deschaine, a married couple who live in Anchorage.
Chris Miller Photography
This trend has opened up a yawning economic divide. Studies have shown that married women and men tend to be much better off financially than those who are unmarried, and that those who have fewer assets and more debt early on are less likely to marry or have stable marriages than those who are more financially secure.
“There are relatively few relationships that are more fully documented than those between economic well-being and marriage,” said Ron Haskins, who is the author of many scholarly papers on marriage and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The connection between marriage and wealth is much more than additive. A 2012 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the median 65-to-69-year-old married household had almost 10 times as much in savings as the typical single-person household: $111,600 compared with $12,500. “It’s a plain fact that people who are married have more income, wealth and savings that last into their retirement,” Mr. Haskins said.
There are many factors other than marital status that account for wealth and poverty. But the experiences and outlooks of Louis Ulmer, a 34-year-old married business-development manager in Anchorage and Evette Ferguson, a never-married 48-year-old nurse in Arlington, Tex., illustrate the separate and often unequal economic realities faced by married and unmarried Americans.
Evette Ferguson, a never-married 48-year-old nurse in Arlington, Tex.
When Mr. Ulmer, who works for the First National Bank of Alaska, and Tamara Deschaine, 34, were wed three years ago, he wasn’t sure if his marriage would make them better able to save.
But the words of a college economics professor are still fresh in his mind. “He said, ‘The two most important things in a person’s life are their money and their family — in that order,’ ” Mr. Ulmer said. “Twelve years out of college and into the real world, I’ve accepted the truth: He was spot on. Being married gives us the desire to have greater financial security and less debt.”
Ms. Ferguson, who works in Texas for Teva Pharmaceuticals, said, “Maybe I would be more financially secure if I were married.” Although she has a house and a pretty secure retirement in place, she has debts, too. She sees how her married sister has been better able to build up financial assets, even though her sister’s husband was recently laid off. “They have a cushion I don’t have,” Ms. Ferguson said. “I think she’s better off being married. She’s been able to save more and doesn’t have to use all her money just to pay the bills, as I do.”
“If I had someone else,” she said, “it would be easier.”
Doug and Twila Sutherland, who’ve been married nearly 69 years.
Jonathan Rauch, another fellow at the Brookings Institution and a leader of the Marriage Opportunity Council, a new multi-institution project, said, “Marriage is thriving among people with four-year college diplomas, but the further down you go on the educational and economic totem pole, the worse it’s doing.”
“There’s a growing danger that marriage, with all its advantages for stability, income and child well-being, will look like a gated community for the baccalaureate class, with ever-shrinking working-class participation,” Mr. Rauch said. “We’re not there yet, but that’s the trajectory we’re on.”
In a nation that places a high value on personal freedom, it could be tempting to wave away these concerns. The decision to go it alone can be every bit as fulfilling and life-affirming as the decision to enter into a marriage. Nevertheless, other data are signaling that for a number of Americans, not marrying carries with it a risk of falling behind economically.
Other research indicates that those who find themselves already lower on the socioeconomic ladder may be less likely to ever marry. A 2012 study by the Brookings Institution found that only women in the top 10 percent of Americans in earnings saw their marriage rates increase between 1970 and 2011, whereas women in the bottom 65 percent in earnings had become much less likely to marry, with their marriage rate declining by more than 20 percentage points. This was also mirrored in the experiences of men in the study.
Marriage is about as good a predictor of economic success as are education, race and ethnicity, according to a 2014 study by Robert Lerman at the Urban Institute, and W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
In their analysis of census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data, they concluded that if married households today equaled the numbers seen in 1980, “the growth in median income of families with children would be 44 percent higher.”
The study also found a link between the decline in the number of Americans “who form and maintain stable, married families” and the growth in income inequality.
As united as social scientists appear to be about the strong correlation between marriage and higher net worth, a good many of them part company over whether greater marital wealth results from having the skills and propensity to work hard, save, stay out of debt and also seek out and marry those with the same attributes — versus those who start down the same road having low wages, little in savings and less education and as such may find it harder to find and maintain stable marriages.
“Married men are more likely to work, make more money and not engage in dangerous behaviors like drunken driving and committing crimes,” Mr. Haskins contends.
For women coming of age in an era when their own educational and career prospects are brighter than ever, hitching their star to someone with high personal debts or negligible savings — or both — seems to have become unappealing.
In 2013, the economist David H. Autor and Melanie Wasserman, a graduate student at M.I.T., found that, “Sharp declines in the earning power of non-college males combined with the economic self-sufficiency of women — rising educational attainment, falling gender gap and greater female control over fertility choices — have reduced the economic value of marriage for women.”
Daniel Schwartzman, a 25-year-old community college student who lives in a group house in Albuquerque, N.M., wishes to marry but said he would not date anyone who was not financially secure. “If a woman had big car loans, student loans and other debt, and didn’t have a job, I would rule her out,” he said.
Money is an issue that persists for a number of his friends who he said have put off marriage because of lack of savings. “They want their partner to be responsible and not dragging them down financially,” he said. “A lot of couples move in with their parents, because everyone is just trying to survive on minimum-wage jobs.”
Married same-sex couples tend to be more financially secure than single gay Americans, said Ineke Mushovic, the executive director of the Movement Advancement Project in Denver, a policy research organization focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Poverty rates for gay men and lesbians living alone are more than 20 percent, compared with 4.3 percent for partnered gay men and 7.6 percent for partnered lesbians, the organization reports.
The divorce rate has helped reduce the number of married households in the United States. At the same time, others have postponed marriage or never married. And census data show that the number of cohabiting couples has shot up to 7.5 million in 2011 from 450,000 in 1960.
Yet, the desire to marry remains strong. In a 2013 Gallup Poll, only 5 percent of Americans reported that they did not want to marry.
Mr. Ulmer of Anchorage said that he and his wife have found that “two incomes are obviously better than one and they help pay for more. But there are many expenses I wouldn’t have incurred in the first place as a single person.”
Being married, he believes, “gives us the desire to have greater financial security and less debt. My wife and I enjoy every minute of those moments together, which in turn leads us to plan more effectively for retirement so we can continue to afford the lifestyle we want.”
“I see the clear connection between marriage and savings,” said Doug Sutherland, a 94-year-old minister from Raymore, Mo., whose wife of nearly 69 years, Twila, 92, has resided in an Alzheimer’s center since 2010. “Way back when, we started a savings account and we prided ourselves on saving regularly,” he said. “I’m thankful we did” — most notably, he added, because of the $8,000 a month in bills for his wife’s inpatient care.
Insufficient savings and other financial matters are the most common cause of discord among American couples, said Ernie Almonte, chairman of the National C.P.A. Financial Literacy Commission, a part of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, which studied this problem.
“Divorce causes a decrease in wealth that is larger than just splitting a couple’s assets in half,” said Jay Zagorsky, an Ohio State University economist. “If you really want to increase your wealth, get married and stay married.”