Marriage: Husbands Get Richer, Bachelors Get Screwed

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Tom Schierlitz / Getty

How's this for unintended consequences? Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the women's movement have been married men. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, married men have a 60% higher median household income than they did in 1970, even adjusted for inflation. Unmarried men, on the other hand, only got a 16% bump.

One reason for the rise is that more men are marrying women who make more money than they do, mainly because there are more high-income women to go around. In 1970, just 4% of men ages 30 to 44 had wives who brought in more bacon than they did. By 2007, more than a fifth (22%) of men in that age bracket had wives who outearned them. Members of this thriving demographic are effectively doubling their income or more when they wed, without doubling their costs.

Aside from the increase in white-collar women, the other trend behind the Pew numbers is that marriage rates have declined most sharply among the least educated men and women, which helps explain why the median household income figures for married men have pulled even further ahead of those for their single counterparts. More of the least affluent are unmarried than before.

The study, which drew on household income data from the Decennial Census and the 2007 American Community Survey, conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau, showed that the biggest gainers were married college-educated men. The biggest losers were unmarried men who did not complete high school or who only had a high school diploma. After adjusting for inflation, the 2007 cohort had lower household incomes than their 1970 counterparts. "The steeper decline in marriage among the less educated has contributed to a steeper decline in their income," says one of the study's authors, D'Vera Cohn.

The trend has a dark side, says Dalton Conley, social sciences dean at New York University. "High-income women marrying high-income men is one of the drivers of inequality," he says. "It affects the distribution of income between families." He notes that among college-educated high-income couples, the divorce rate is getting lower, while unmarried low-income men and women tend to partner up and then uncouple more rapidly. "This leads to family instability and a cycle of disadvantage," says Conley. Single parents often have trouble moving ahead in their careers, while low-earning parents have little income to save or invest. They fall further behind, while the families with two college-educated earners pull ever more ahead.

Sociologists refer to the phenomenon of people marrying people who are like them as homogamy. Doctors don't marry nurses anymore. They marry other doctors. And the nurses? Well, let's just say they don't seem too keen these days on the orderlies.