The Economic Benefits of Marriage: A Closing Gap

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Conventional wisdom says that if you want to be richer, a useful thing to do is get married. Life is cheaper when there's only one mortgage to pay and someone else can do certain tasks — cooking, say, or car repair — more efficiently than you. Research by Ohio State University's Jay Zagorsky shows that married baby boomers increase their wealth an average 16% a year, while those who are single increase their net worth at half that rate.

Yet the economic benefit of marriage isn't what it used to be. In a chapter of a book newly out from the Russell Sage Foundation, Changing Poverty, Changing Policies, two social scientists show that the marriage premium has subsided since 1969. Maria Cancian, a professor of public affairs and social work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Deborah Reed, director of research at Mathematica Policy Research, set out to study how the changing makeup of American families has affected the number of people below the poverty line. Considering how the rate of marriage has fallen and the rate of divorce has risen, the researchers expected the number of people living below the poverty line to grow 2.6%. But when they looked at the data, poverty had increased by less than half that amount.

Why? In a nutshell, because single women, even those with kids, have an easier time supporting themselves outside marriage than they used to. More women are working, increasingly for wages that are competitive with those of men. Women are having children later in life, and fewer of them. On top of that, a growing percentage of women who have children but aren't married don't live on their own. In 1970, 62% of single mothers were the only adult in their household, but by 2006, just 55% were living without another means of support — thanks to more women cohabitating with a male partner or grandparent.

Now, that's not to say marriage doesn't coincide with significant economic benefits. As research by Zagorsky and others illustrates, it does. A child in a single-parent family, for instance, is five times as likely to live below the poverty line. What Cancian and Reed try to illustrate, though, is that replicating marriage wouldn't necessarily generate more per-person wealth. "There are reasons some people don't get married — they don't have the same options," says Cancian. Marrying someone who is chronically unemployed —or incarcerated — might very well not be an economic step up.

A better policy response, the researchers hold, is to address the variable that has partly been holding poverty at bay the past few decades: women in the workforce. Policies designed to make it easier for a person to have a job while rearing a child — flexible work schedules, on-site day care — could be a way to let unmarried individuals recapture some of the advantage of marriage. The issue is hardly fringe: last year, some 40% of children were born outside of marriage. "We have to build a system where people can be both good workers and good parents," says Cancian.