Does marriage build wealth?

I wonder if financial fear is one reason keeping young men from proposing to their girlfriends these days. The average age of males on their wedding day has increased from 22.8 in 1960 to 28.2 today (for women the averages are 20.3 and 26.1). Do young men fear that a wife and kids are going to drain away all their income? Does it surprise you to know that the exact opposite is true? That getting married and staying married actually significantly increases your net worth over time?

In this current election cycle, we are already hearing and will hear much more about “income inequality” (read my thoughts on that here). There really are two Americas, and the gap is widening. But is that gap widening because “the system” is rigged so that only some can succeed, or do people’s choices and personal behaviors affect the growth or decline in their net worth? Some of America’s top social researchers argue strenuously that behaviors matter more than many think.

Oren Cass is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He writes in the October 5 issue of National Review that people in America are not fixed in their social or economic class by birth. According to nonpartisan longitudinal studies, children born to married parents with incomes in the bottom 20% (“quintile”) will end up as adults spread evenly through the other four quintiles, whereas half the children raised by single parents in that bottom quintile will stay stuck there as adults. Cass calls the evaporation of marriage in the American underclass “an unprecedented social collapse.”

In his 2012 book Coming Apart, American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray agrees, saying that families in the bottom 30% of our country are approaching the point of no return. In the 50 years from 1960 to 2010, the percentage of white 30- and 40-year-olds in the top 20% of America who were married sagged only a little, from 94% to 84%. In the bottom 30%, the decline was from 84% to 48%. In that same 50-year time span, the percentage of white children living with both parents when the mother was age 40 went from 95% to 90% in the upper 20%, but from 95% to 30% in the lower group. The numbers for minority families are heartbreakingly worse.
Jay Zagorsky did a lengthy study on the financial impact of marriage for Ohio State University. He found that, in the age group 55-64, married couples had an average net worth of $261,405, while single men of that age were worth an average of $71,428 and single women $39,043. Zagorsky reports also that divorce will reduce your net worth by an average of 77% (i.e., not just by half).  
It might seem counterintuitive to accept marital advice from King Solomon. Even biblical Christians might have to swallow hard to listen to someone with seven hundred wives (plus three hundred concubines). But ignore the messenger and pay attention to the gist of the message, which was prompted by God: “Two are better than one,” he writes. Why? “. . . because they have a good return for their labor” (Ecclesiastes 4:9). Why do you suppose marriage is such a wealth builder? Some hypotheses:

  • It is financially more efficient for two adults to live under one roof rather than maintaining two separate residences. Over time that’s a real wealth builder.
  • A two-person life partnership brings a double set of skills, reducing significantly the number of people you will have to hire to do things for you.
  • When one is laid off or fired or takes a time-out from the labor force to care for a newborn, the other’s income can sustain the team.
  • Only one needs a job with health insurance.
  • Social Security and IRS taxation provide important marriage benefits that over time build wealth faster for couples than for single people.
  • Call me whatever names you want, but it just seems to me that men’s social behaviors improve dramatically when they are committed to supporting a wife and children. A husband acts more like a man than a baby daddy.
  • When a married person dies, the surviving spouse inherits everything. I would bet half my pension that the net worth of widows is far greater than that of divorcees (even with alimony payments).

I’m with Solomon, Cass, Zagorsky, and Murray on this one. Two really are better than one.

Need some guidance for building wealth? Here are my 10 tips.

Pastor Mark Jeske has been bringing the Word of God to viewers of Time of Grace since the program began airing in late 2001. A Milwaukee native, Pastor Jeske has served as the senior pastor at St. Marcus Lutheran Church on Milwaukee’s near north side since 1980. In addition, he is the author of six books and dozens of devotional booklets on various topics.

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