Is marriage good for society? Most people would answer yes, but not everything about marriage is positive. Marriage is good for individuals, and married people tend to be happier, healthier, and better off than unmarried people. However, marriage can also be a “greedy” institution that takes people’s time and attention away from other commitments. Marriage requires a huge investment of time and energy in one’s spouse, leaving less time and energy for other relationships and responsibilities. For instance, according to one previous study, married people give less emotional support and practical assistance to their parents than unmarried people do. Do married people also withdraw from other commitments, such as participation in volunteering and charitable giving?
Intuitively, it seems that marriage could have positive or negative effects on volunteering and charitable giving. On the one hand, marriage makes people happier and healthier, increases household income, reduces living expenses, and increases religious service attendance. All of these changes would tend to make people increase both their volunteering and their charitable giving.
On the other hand, marriage can lead people to withdraw from work-based social networks and friendships, making it less likely that people would be asked to give money or time. Furthermore, marriage increases the hours that women spend on housework and the hours that men spend on paid work, leaving less time for volunteering. Married people are less free to spend their time as they see fit because they must coordinate their actions with their spouse and may feel that they should spend time with their spouse instead of following their own pursuits. These changes in time allocation would lead us to expect married people to spend less time volunteering, but would have little effect on charitable giving.
Deborah Philbrick and I recently tested these theories by analyzing data from a longitudinal survey, the Center on Philanthropy Panel Study module of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. This survey tracks over 13,000 people over time, surveying them at two-year intervals between 2001 and 2009. By following individuals through the years as they got married, we could compare their giving and volunteering before marriage with their giving and volunteering after marriage to see whether they changed.
Marriage tends to be a “greedy” institution in regards to volunteering and a “generous” one in regards to charitable giving.
We found that marriage tends to be a “greedy” institution in regards to volunteering and a “generous” one in regards to charitable giving. We also found that the effect depended on gender, as marriage was generous for men but greedy for women. When women get married, they are likely to stop volunteering or reduce their hours, and marriage has little effect on their charitable giving. The effects of marriage are strong: of the women who married between one wave and the next, 22.2% volunteered while they were single and only 16.1% volunteered once they got married, and their average hours volunteered per year dropped from 36.1 to 14.1.
When men get married, in contrast, they are more likely to give money to charity and give larger amounts, and the time they devote to volunteering does not change. The effects are also strong, with 30.8% of the men who married between waves giving to charity while single and 43.9% giving to charity once married. The average amount donated rose from $331.54 per year before marriage to $450.73 after marriage. Marriage continued to have a positive effect on men’s charitable giving even two to four years after the marriage took place. Marriage had a particularly positive effect on religious giving, and this positive effect applied to both men and women.
Our study has interesting implications for the study of marriage and its relationship to civil society and social capital. In the short term, at least, marriage takes women out of volunteer commitments but brings men into greater participation in civil society through charitable giving. Given other research that finds that marriage has stronger and more positive effects for men than for women, this finding is not surprising.
One limitation of our research is that we could only study how marriage affected people in the short term. Women’s withdrawal from volunteering may be a honeymoon effect, in which they put more energy into their personal lives initially, but return to their old volunteering habits once the novelty of the marriage wears off. Later on, after they have children, married women may increase volunteering, particularly when their children become old enough to go to school.
Despite its limitations, our study is significant because it is the first to follow individuals over time as they get married and track how their giving and volunteering behavior changes. The results paint a nuanced picture, as marriage is neither wholly greedy nor wholly generous, but both in different contexts. Perhaps the most important finding is the way the effects of marriage vary by gender, making men more generous with their money while leading women to quit or scale back their volunteering. Feminist scholars have long criticized marriage for perpetuating gender inequality, and this research partially justifies their critique in an area not previously examined.
Christopher Einolf is an Associate Professor at DePaul University’s School of Public Service, where he chairs the Masters program in Nonprofit Management. His research focuses on volunteering, charitable giving, and human rights.