Wealth Matters: People with Stuff Are More Likely to Marry

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People who have more personal wealth — in the form of a car, say, or a small nest egg — are more likely to get married than those who have less, according to a new analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. It’s further evidence, as if it were needed, that money and marriage are becoming increasingly intertwined in ways that are not yet fully understood.

One of the most striking sociological trends to emerge in recent decades is the widening wealth gap between those who are married and those who aren’t. The marrying kind tend to be more educated, wealthier and whiter — so they often start with more advantages. But because marriage often brings with it extra benefits to health, finances and family, the economically disadvantaged unmarried are set back doubly, and the gap between the well-off and the struggling grows ever wider.

Marriage rates have been falling across the board since the 1980s, but particularly so among certain groups. “What is perhaps most striking is the increasing stratification in marriage by race and education,” said Daniel Schneider, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University and the author of the study, in a statement. “From 1980 to 2000, the percentage of white women who had been married by ages 25 to 29 had dropped by 13 percentage points to 68%, but the drop was far larger for blacks, dropping 25 points, to just 38%.”

Indeed, the historically low rates of marriage among African Americans — U.S. Census data suggests that 40% of black women will not be married by the age of 40 — has led to a lot of debate in recent weeks, stirred partly by the publication of the not-at-all-controversially titled book Is Marriage for White People?

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Researchers have tried to narrow down exactly what it is that makes people more likely to marry, and often they settle on education and income as the critical factors. Since blacks and the less educated traditionally face disadvantages in the job market, they may tend delay marriage longer, increasing gaps in marriage rates. But Schneider’s study, published in the American Journal of Sociology, suggests that income explains only part of the gap. Personal assets may account for more of the willingness to wed, Schneider says, especially among men.

This makes intuitive sense. Marriage is not something to be entered into lightly — as the preachers like to say. And it requires quite a lot of optimism and hope — as the celebrants at second weddings like to say. It’s much easier to imagine other people depending on you in the future, if you have even a little something to fall back on.

Schneider hypothesized that if accumulated riches matter in people’s decisions to marry, then the fact that blacks often start off with less than whites would explain some of the disparity in marriage rates. To test this theory, he looked at whether personal wealth, such as having a car, money in a savings account or financial assets like stocks and bonds, was associated with the likelihood of entering into first marriage in any given year.

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After controlling for income, employment and family background, Schneider found that, indeed, owning a car or having financial assets increased the probability that a man would get married in a given year. The effect was also true of women, but less so. Based on his analysis, Schneider concluded that personal wealth further accounted for a significant part of the racial gap in marriage rates; he estimates that about 30% of the gap could be attributed to accumulated wealth, while 20% could be explained by income, employment and public benefits. “What people own, not just what they earn or know, shapes entrance into marriage and so may perpetuate disadvantage across generations,” writes Schneider.

What to do? Programs that help poorer people to accrue some assets, no matter how small should be encouraged, he believes. “Even small amounts of wealth may help disadvantaged men and women meet the economic standard of marriage,” he said.

MORE: Whites and Blacks Are Intermarrying More Often