Some of the ways that married and single people are treated differently are economic ones. In ways big and small – many of which are written right into American laws – married people are rewarded financially simply for being married. On April 15, I will have more to say about that. Today, I want to share the results of a new study.
Financial assets can accumulate over time, as married people rake in their monetary perks while singles go without. Over time, more people are staying single longer – sometimes for life. Even those who do marry at some point are typically marrying later than they used to, and even though rates of divorce are no longer rising overall, divorce is more commonplace than it was in the past.
There have been changes in rates of marriage by race, too. In the opening decades of the 20th century, Blacks had higher rates of marriage than Whites. Now, that has reversed.
What does accumulated wealth look like for Blacks and Whites of different marital statuses when they are approaching their retirement? That’s the question addressed by a just-published study, “Marriage, marital history, and Black-White wealth differentials among older women.” To the authors, “older” meant 51 to 61 year-olds. (As a 59-year-old, I object.) The data came from a nationally representative sample.
To determine the total net wealth, the authors included measures of the value of the participants’ primary residence, their cars or other vehicles, their savings and stocks. They also took debt into account.
The study does not allow for statements of causality, so keep that in mind. The results were presented in great detail, but my bottom line summary of their results is: More marriage equals more money.
A few specifics:
By the time of their pre-retirement years (ages 51-61), the women who had always been single had accumulated less total net wealth than the women who were currently married. Among the women who were low on the total-net-wealth totem pole (25th quantile), the always-single women had accumulated about $40,000 less than the currently married. In the middle of the pack (50th quantile), they had accumulated about $52,000 less, and among the high-total-net-wealth crowd (75th quantile), they had accumulated about $70,000 less.
The women who were previously married also had accumulated less wealth than the currently married, but the differences were not as big: approximately $37,000; $44,000; and $48,000 less at the 25th, 50th, and 75th quantiles.
There were big disparities in wealth by race. As the authors noted, “Having any history of marital disruption or nonmarriage…has its most deleterious long-term implications for disadvantaged Black women.” The authors estimate that differences in marital and relationship histories account for about 10 percent of the wealth disparities between Black and White women in their pre-retirement years.
The authors did not estimate the percentage of the financial advantages of married people that was attributable to the singlism written into American laws. They did, though, discuss several ways in which married couples can accumulate wealth more readily than single people can. They mentioned, for example, the “economies of scale” – married couples can share space and goods. Of course, single people can do the same if they want to live with other people.
What single people cannot do is to enjoy the privileges conferred by law only to married people. The authors acknowledged that married women “benefit from social and federal policies such as spousal health insurance, pension plans, and Social Security benefits in the event of the death of their husbands.” (See also Onely’s analysis in the Atlantic.)
Happily, the authors did not frame their study as a lecture on why women should get married. (But they also did not call for the repeal of policies that discriminate against singles.) Instead, they noted that “the main purpose of this study was to draw attention to an especially vulnerable population – older middle-aged Black women.”
African American woman photo available from Shutterstock