The successful marriages of well-educated couples allow the rich to get richer and sustain concentrations of wealth through successive generations. Moreover, the relative marital success of well-educated couples contributes enormously to society’s ever-widening gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
First, for the record, I do not encourage marrying for economic benefits. Nonetheless, it bears pointing out that any “marriage tax” that is imposed on newlyweds is more than offset by the “bundling” effect of paying for lots of expenses together. For example, couples in California pay a very hefty price for property taxes. A single homeowner would have to pay this property tax on his or her own while a married (or any cohabitating) couple collectively shares this expense. Married couples also share the burden of cost for other major housing-related expenses like homeowners insurance, internet service fees, shared family phone plans, and monthly waste collection services. As long as a given couples’ relationship remains intact, they will continue to have a substantial economic advantage over the single (or non-cohabitating) homeowner.
The same effect holds true for those with children. There are many reasons to consider having children, but increasing one’s financial wealth and economic security is not one of them. In fact, one of the most consistent predictors of poverty is the decision to have children, i.e., to electively cultivate non-wage earning dependents for 18+ years. The cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 for a middle-income, two-parent family averaged $226,920 in 2010 (not including college tuition and expenses), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture**. Successfully married couples with children who earn two incomes, followed by those earning one income with the advantage of “economic bundling,” have a substantial financial advantage relative to single parents.
When a couple divorces, standard of living typically drops significantly for one partner (usually the female partner in a heterosexual marriage) or both partners and for any children produced by that marriage. Even among the wealthiest couples, divorce often leads to a diffusion of wealth among a greater number of children in blended families. So, divorce results in both less concentration of wealth in the present time and a decreased ability to pass down accrued wealth to future generations.
In addition to housing and childcare expenses, a third major category of financial expenditure is healthcare. Once again, there are significant financial benefits for married couples. A family medical insurance plan is usually far cheaper than two individual insurance policies.
There is also evidence that stable, happy marriages confer protective health benefits. One enterprising researcher, Dr. Janet Kiecolt-Glaser, obtained permission to make a small cut on the bodies of her research subjects. She then tracked the time to heal and found that this was associated with degree of marital happiness – couples in more satisfying relationships healed faster***. Based on this line of research, she concluded, “a bad marriage can depress the body’s immune system. Unhappily married women have subnormal levels of white blood cells, which destroy infections, and increase herpes virus activity. Other immune system depressants are stress and loneliness.”
In fact, I recently came across a particularly disturbing research finding: it appears that too many trips to the altar seem to be associated with an earlier death. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine discovered that people who had been married at least three times were 34 percent more likely to die at any given time after the age of 50 than those who had limited themselves to just one union****. Based on the rates of earlier death, I would infer the presence of a host of life threatening (and financially devastating) illnesses among those who have married multiple times.
So, clearly, stable marriage confers both immediate financial benefits for the present time, and greater economic benefits for descendants. Making the connection between financial standing and a good marriage is important because this relationship must have an enormous influence on the distribution of wealth across members of our society. In a society that does not offer an even playing field to begin with, those whose marriages are successful, and the children produced by these unions, benefit disproportionately in terms of financial security and future economic opportunities. If well-educated couples continue to have much more stable, satisfying marriages than couples with less education, the gap between the wealthy and the less advantaged can only continue to grow.
* Vaillant, C.O., and Vaillant, G.E. (1993). “Is the U-curve of Marital Satisfaction an Illusion? A 40-year study of Marriage.” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 55, p. 236.
*** Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Newton TL (2001). Marriage and health: His and hers. Psychological Bulletin 127:472-503.
**** Macrae, F. “Your Third Marriage? It May be the Death of You, According to New Research.” (posted August 13, 2010). Accessed January 22, 2011. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1302632/Your-marriage-death-according-new-research.html>