Marriage is for suckers

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A loyal reader of the Curious Capitalist has asked me to post a story I wrote for Since I’m here to serve:

Conventional wisdom says 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 wealth by an average 16% a year. 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 just out from the Russell Sage Foundation, Changing Poverty, Changing Policies, two social scientists show that since 1969 the marriage premium has subsided. 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 make-up 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 by 2.6%. But when they looked at the data, poverty had increased by less than half that amount.

You can read why here.

There was a great graph in that book chapter which I didn’t have a chance to discuss in the story, so I’ll reproduce it here:


This very coolly shows that the jump in the proportion of children born to unmarried mothers in the 1960s and 70s didn’t have all that much to do with unmarried mothers. Married women started having fewer and fewer babies—so it felt like there were all these new single mothers running around. There weren’t. Though that doesn’t mean we haven’t been talking about them every since.

[Here are the other things I have to tell you about that graph. Sources: Author’s compilation. Measures for the period 1960 to 1979 are from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1995); measures for 1980 to 2006 are from Martin et al. (2009). Copyright: Russell Sage Foundation 2009]