Economic Benefits of Marriage

In 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts published an interesting study showing just who is falling out of the middle class.

– Compared with married women, women who are divorced, widowed or separated are between 31 and 36 percentage points more likely to fall down the economic ladder. In turn, never-married women are 16 to 19 percentage points more likely to be downwardly mobile than married women.

– Men who are divorced, widowed or separated are 13 percentage points more likely to drop out of the middle class than are married men, and men who have never married are 6 to 10 percentage points more likely to fall than married men.

This is kind of a no-duh bit of information but it’s something I honestly never thought about before I got married. Before then I thought of marriage as beneficial emotionally and spiritually. Now I definitely see marriage as more of an exercise in successful team building with romance and affection as a pleasant bonus.

With my salary I would be somewhere in the lower half of the middle class. Combined with my wife’s salary we find ourselves comfortably in the upper half. That is huge. That jump equals much more opportunity for us and our children. That means greater likelihood that they themselves will also be successful (and hopefully marry someone successful thus pushing further up the ladder). Also, because of this cushion we have more disposable income to inject back into the economy. There are also all kinds of ancillary benefits like better health that create less drain on health services and less likelihood of us drawing on social services. Win-win for everyone.

The study goes on to mention limiting other factors that should be fairly obvious (drug use, lack of education, etc). Regardless, there certainly seems to be some real incentives for the government to promote marriage as a net positive for society. The best way to drive this is probably through what Ross Douthat has long described as a ‘family friendly tax policy’.  This has probably been the biggest reason why I have warmed to the idea of gay marriage. It would be even more interesting to see of the economic benefits of marriage scale upwards when we introduce the notion of plural marriages. But of course, that is a post unto itself.

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41 thoughts on “Economic Benefits of Marriage

  1. I have seen that the material prospects (and stability) of married persons is much better than single or divorced, but I think it’s worth teasing out why.

    Is it the obligation that comes from having responsibility for a family ?   I know that I, as a single guy, am much more inclined to quit a  job I don’t like, or to  pursue fulfillment over stability.

    Or, is it because of the additional ‘safety net” of having a second potential income earner should one trip and fall, or become sick.   So things might be tough, but a lot less tough than having no income at all.

    Or is it more correlative than casual:  are the people who get and stay married the same people who are more likely to get and keep a  job?     Are they the kinds of responsibility-driven people that are more likely to finish their college degree, get on a management track, and get the raise?

    All of the above?   Something else I haven’t though of?

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    • My personal experience is that it completely re-orders your priorities. Every time I think about making an impulse purchase I know my wife will read the bank statement so I think a little longer than I did when I was single (I bought a Battle of the Planets t-shirt online last week so those things haven’t stopped completely).

      As for a career, for me it was interesting. I thought being married would give me the flexibility to explore other career options that might require starting at the bottom. Just knowing I had the option made me pretty happy. But then I began to get so much more fulfillment out of my personal life that work moved way farther down the list. I like my job but it doesn’t define me anymore. It’s just what I do to fund my personal life.

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      • …I began to get so much more fulfillment out of my personal life that work moved way farther down the list. I like my job but it doesn’t define me anymore. It’s just what I do to fund my personal life.

        That sounds both wonderful and awful at the same time:  I derive most of my life satisfaction from my work.     The idea of spending 40 – 60 hours per week on something I’m disengaged from sounds pretty onerous to me.    But, of course, I have no one to come home to.

         

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        • I like my job. I’m engaged when I’m there and I’m proud of the work I do. It just doesn’t define me. I’m never going to care if someone puts ‘Program Analyst’ in my obituary. On the other hand if they don’t mention that I was a passionate outdoorsman, a loving husband, a proud father and a devoted friend… I would feel wronged.

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        • I’m with Mike on the job thing. It’s that thing you do to sustain the life you want to live.

          Now I personally know some people who find passion and enjoyment in their job (and get paid for it, my goodness!) but I have never found a professional calling that speaks to me in that manner. For a lot of people finding a job you just don’t mind is often the best they can hope for (in the absence of discovering some unexploited/unexplored area of talent).

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          • Michael,

            I don’t know how well you know San Francisco, or what your tastes in food are, but I’m going to pre-emptively recommend that you get a dinner at Thep Phenom, on the corner of Waller and Fillmore.  My wife and I used to eat there all the time, and it regularly won awards for best Thai food in San Francisco.

            And if you have time, rent a car and go to Muir Woods.  It’s absolutely beautiful.

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          • I have not yet made a reservation.

            Kitty is going back to Bryn Mawr for her reunion.  Originally we all were going to go, then just her to save money, then her and the kids because the kids have friends to see, and we still haven’t settled.

            If she goes and takes the kids, I’m going to try very hard to be there at least for a turnaround so I can meet everybody.  If she goes and doesn’t take the kids I’ll have to try harder, but there’s a good chance I can dragoon my mother into housesitting for a day or two.

            Basically, I don’t want to say “YES” for sure.  But the probability is above 50-50 that I’ll at least be there for the big dinner.

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  2.  

    Mike, I suspect that the evidence is already largely in on it in the negative as to benefits of plural marriage versus binary marriage. The old saw goes two’s company, three’s a crowd and I suspect there’s significant salience in this cliché to the question. When there’re two of you it’s a team, just you and the other. As soon as there’s three you now are in a group and suddenly you’re part of a social group large enough for there to be room for teams to form. You inevitably have squabbles in any relationship but in 3+ groups there’s suddenly room for hierarchies of dominance and relative importance and groupings within the group. The team mentality is in danger of vanishing into an endless web of intrigues and social power struggles. As a practical matter binary relationships have a fundamental ease and simplicity of division that other numbers of people lack. Again there’s a question of relative authority, relative share etc… if one partner is sick then his/her other partner calls the shots on care. But in a group system who calls the shots? What if the two (or more) healthy partners disagree? The historical record on binary versus group marriages also generally rules in favor of binary. Historically group marriages have come in the form of powerful men accumulating harems to the detriment of both other all women and lower powered men in the society. Same sex marriage, contrastingly, has little to no historical precedent. That’s why I’m of the opinion that same sex marriage seems to be approaching promisingly from ahead while plural marriages generally are receding in the rear view mirror.

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      • I fear I disagree. At it’s most basic form a marriage says “if something is wrong with me, or if I’m not around, He/She can act with all the authority that I would have regarding my person or my assets or my dependants.” This is fundamentally impossible if you change he/she to they because at that point there needs to be some contingency for if they can’t/won’t agree.

        While any number of organization function with more than two decision makers I’d submit that an enormous amount of the drama, tension and inefficiencies that exist in those organizations (and that even average marriages avoid) is due to the complexity that having more than two people in the organization adds.

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  3. I’m not sure I get the idea of family friendly tax incentives to promote marriage.  It seems clear to me that marriage is not the cause of more economic freedom.  Rather, in a marriage you either have two incomes, or you have someone that makes an income that can support multiple people – but that person would still be making enough money to support multiple people even if they were single.  I’m not sure that I see any non-tax economic advantage that living together with a BF or GF does not provide.  Also, I work with a woman who’s family lives with both her mother and her sister’s family.  They have a lot of disposable income and have a great deal of financial security, despite none of the four working adults making a tremendous amount of money

    So I wonder how much of what you describe is actually attributable to marriage, and how much is simply a byproduct of communal living.

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    • I think the idea with marriage (in the Western sense) is that it’s a tighter unit. We in the west aren’t as keen on comunal living.

      It’s also more permanent than living with a GF or BF. Plus, often in those case finances aren’t completely merged which means there is some duplicity.

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      • I’m with Mike here too, there’s an enormous amount of reliable emotional and financial stability that comes from being in love with another person and managing your finances as if you were one entity.  Communal living is useful but what you end up having in many cases is a fundamentally unstable grouping with either equitable splits with horrible division costs or horribly inequitable divisions when the group gets sick of each other.

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        • My brother lived with high now-wife for two years before they got married. Separate finances. It went alright but he complained about duplicated fees (cell phones, etc). Then they got married and she wanted to keep it separate. They fought like cats and dogs about money (something my wife and I have never done).  They finally merged things and most of that went away. A true financial partnership only comes from having both names on the checkbook.

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          • I’ll see your anecdata and raise. My wife and I keep separate finances and have since we lived together before we were married. While we don’t go so far as to have different cell phone plans, we do keep separate bank accounts. This eliminates almost all financial stress as we never question what the other is spending money on. Each of us is responsible for paying different bills (I write her a check for my portion of the mortgage) and it works well. We have never fought about money either. In general I have found that couples only fight about money when they don’t have enough of it to meet their differing sets of priorities.

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        • To a degree. Even then though there were usually clear boundaries between couples and segments of the family (different homes or different rooms within the homes). Also, while there was shared labor there was usually separate finances.

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          • True- a larger point is that the concept of a nuclear family is historically odd; Most households were comprised of multiple generations living together. Although finances were separate, the household operated as a single unit, usually with a patriachal hierarchy.

            Like in your post, this arrangement allowed a pooling of recourses, and allowed families to enjoy a much higher economic level of prosperity than any one of them could enjoy living alone.

            Often we view extended families through the lens of romantic attachment or nostalgia, forgetting the brutal economics that underlay most of it.

            Which actually makes it an appropriate topic for the present day, with the rapidly disappearing safety net, dismal job prospects, closing door of higher education and social mobility all combining to force multiple generations to live together and pool resources once again.

            I don’t think anyone has really grasped the wider economic implications of that.

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    • Marriage, at least in its ideal form, comes with it the form of a more complete unity and, to an extent, unity. If you’re TNC and you’re living as a married couple in everything but name, then great (at least as far as your situation goes, but I’m not going to get into the second half of that). And heaven knows there are people who get married that don’t act it. But for a lot of people, at least, these things do matter. Marriage increases the pressure to stay together. It increases the reliability that a couple will remain together (not that staying together is a reliable prospect anymore, but it’s more reliable than cohabitation). It generally increases the obligations of being together.

      People, I think, need a nudge to do the right thing. I’d like to think that my wife and I would have stayed together without a doubt even had we never actually been married. Maybe we would have. But it’s been a different experience being married than when we were not. And the biggest differences between my marriage to Clancy and my previous stable LTR with Julianne wasn’t actually the living together part, but the obligation we have to see it through. That there is no “just me” anymore, but “us” to which I am responsible. I never intended things to end with Julianne until they did (we both assumed marriage would occur), but that the escape – if needed – was easier always factored in to my thinking. It was always “if” we stay together, or “assuming” we stay together. Instead of fully planning on staying together and having made the promise to do so in front of God, state, and family. To me, that makes a world of difference.

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  4. It could be the detriments are causal to marriage failure rather than marriage failure being causal to the detriments.  There aren’t exactly a large pool of people who claim that they left their spouse because he or she maintained employment and kept getting promotions.  There is also the not so insignificant factor that failure has a significant cost in its own right.  A person fired from a job typically re-enters the work force at a 30% discount to their former pay.  We should not be surprised that a failed marriage also exacts a toll considering that divorces take 6 months to 2 years to do and is often preceded by many years of problems.  What we shouldn’t expect is that promoting more of the self-assessed least prepared people for marriage will give them the median outcome for people who are married.

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