Commentary

The Decline in Marriage Is Fueling Inequality

Rachel Sheffield
By Rachel Sheffield | October 28, 2014 | 10:27 AM EDT

Thirty-two percent of the growth in family income inequality since 1979 can be linked to the decline in the marriage rate.

That’s according to a new study from the National Marriage Project, authored by W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert Lerman. Marriage’s economic benefits are numerous, according to the study. Being raised by married parents is connected to better economic wellbeing for young adults. So is being married as an adult.

“These two trends reinforce each other,” Wilcox and Lerman explain. “Growing up with both parents increases your odds of becoming highly educated, which in turn leads to higher odds of being married as an adult. Both the added education and marriage result in higher income levels.”

Young men and women raised by married parents earn an average of $6,500 more annually and $4,700 more annually respectively compared to their peers from single-parent families.

Additionally, married men have higher average incomes. This isn’t just because men with higher earnings are more likely to marry, but because married men generally seem to be more productive at work. They work more and earn more.

Married men between 28 and 30 make about $16,000 more on average, and middle-aged married men make about $19,000 more on average compared to their single peers. While women don’t experience this “marriage premium” in their personal incomes, they don’t experience a “marriage penalty” either, and both spouses enjoy higher household incomes compared to their unmarried counterparts.

The benefits of marriage extend across education level and racial background.

It’s often asked whether marriage rates have declined because fewer good job opportunities exist for working class men. But while it’s true that research shows men with higher earnings are more likely to wed, marriage also seems to encourage employment among men.

In fact, the researchers estimate that 51 percent of the 1980-2008 decline in male employment (and 37 percent of the decline between 1980 and 2013) is due to—not caused by-the drop in marriage rates.

Since the 1970s, the decline in male employment has been highest among unmarried men. As the researchers point out, between 1979 and 2008 married fathers between 25-50 years old have had a fairly consistent rate of employment. As of 2013, 90 percent of married 25-50-year-old men were employed or serving in the military–compared to only 75 percent of unmarried men.

The differences in employment rates among married and unmarried men aren’t simply due to education levels or race either. Eighty-four percent of men with a high school degree or less were employed, as of last year, compared to only 67 percent of unmarried men.

Marriage plays a major role when it comes to economic prosperity. Its decline and the subsequent rise of unwed births, which stand at 41 percent currently, should be of great concern.

Even getting the conversation started is an important start. As Wilcox and Lerman express, “Making family patterns a central topic could itself alter the narratives that affect individual and policy decisions and thus limit the damage.” Promoting the importance of marriage, looking for ways to reduce marriage penalties in current means-tested welfare programs and engaging leaders at every level to find ways to strengthen marriage in their communities are other critical steps to take to restore a culture of marriage.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Heritage Foundation.

Rachel Sheffield focuses on welfare, marriage and family, and education as policy analyst in the DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

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