A new article on Today reiterates that marriage has seemingly become a luxury good that is available only to the (relatively) wealthy—and that further cements their high economic and social status:
In recent years, people with a college degree have become more likely to get—and stay—married than their less educated counterparts, and those who stay married also tend to be much wealthier than unmarried adults. . . .
Some experts argue that marriage itself is contributing to rising inequality, because people who are highly educated—and therefore have higher income potential—are more likely to choose each other as spouses.
That’s making it less likely that marriage itself will move someone up the economic ladder, and increasing the chances that two low- or high-income people will couple up and share their economic struggles, or fortunes.
As Susan Brown (co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research) and IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox explain, one factor behind this trend is “a growing sense that just to be marriage material, a person needs to have already met certain financial milestones, such as going to college or having a good, stable job.” Obviously, those milestones have become more difficult to reach in recent decades, between the loss of manufacturing jobs, the decline of labor unions, the rising cost of college, the recession, and other economic developments.
There’s some historical precedent for this trend: Marriage rates dipped sharply during the Great Depression, for instance. But a very high degree of economic security historically has not been a prerequisite for marriage. In certain places and times, marriage has coexisted even with serious poverty.
Given that married couples can benefit from economies of scale and that having two potential earners can help families endure the shock of unemployment or disability, that shouldn’t be surprising. As research by Isabell Sawhill, Adam Thomas, Robert Lerman, and others suggests, even those in poverty could reap some financial gains from marriage. Unlike most luxury goods, then, marriage is accessible to all, and it can actually save you money in the long run. Which means delaying marriage in order to first achieve economic security could make that security harder to achieve.
Of course, I’m not proposing that we bribe the poor or unemployed to get married, nor that we discourage anyone’s efforts to achieve some degree of financial stability prior to marrying. But there’s surely middle ground between imprudence and excessive caution, and finding this place prior to marriage could bring greater stability to couples’ romantic relationships and their economic prospects.