Families and the Economic Crisis

Report Reveals State of Marriage in America

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JAN. 10, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The current economic crisis may be having a positive effect on marriages. Divorce in the United States fell 4% in 2008 to 16.9 divorces per 1,000 married women, after rising from 16.4 in 2005 to 17.5 in 2007.

This is one of the points made in the annual report on the state of marriage published in December by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, together with the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

The report, titled «The State of Our Unions, Marriage in America 2009: Money & Marriage,» also confirmed that Americans are continuing to delay marriage, or forgo it altogether.

Some of this decline results from the trend to delay first marriages: the median age at first marriage went from 20 for females and 23 for males in 1960 to about 26 and 28, respectively, in 2007. Another important factor is the rise in cohabitation.

Along with the data on marriage and divorce, the report contained a series of essays examining the implications of the latest statistics. Looking at the economic impact of the recession on marriage, W. Bradford Wilcox, sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project, noted that it’s not the first time that there is a correlation between an economic crisis and fewer divorces.

The same happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s. In part the decline in divorce is due to economic factors that lead couples merely to temporarily delay divorce. There is, however, another, more lasting dynamic according to Wilcox. In the last few decades, Americans increasingly come to consider marriage primarily as a soul mate relationship. So, emotional intimacy, sexual satisfaction, and individual happiness came to be the primary aspirations for marriage.

«The recession reminds us that marriage is more than an emotional relationship; marriage is also an economic partnership and social safety net,» Wilcox commented. So, losing a job, seeing pension funds decline, or appreciating more the need for two incomes, encourages many couples to stick together.


Economic pressures also have a downside, Wilcox admitted. Financial difficulties can bring with them drinking, depression and increased marital tensions, in some cases leading to divorce. Overall, nevertheless, most married couples have not responded to the economic crisis by choosing divorce.

Wilcox does warn, however, that the impact of the economic crisis could fall more heavily on those without much education. Unemployment has hit men without college degrees particularly hard. In fact, more than 75% of job losses have been concentrated in this group.

Information dated September 2009 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 4.9% of college-educated women and 5% of college-educated men were unemployed. By contrast, among those with just a high school degree, 8.6% of women and 11.1% of men were unemployed.

Wilcox went on to cite research that he has carried out indicating that husbands are significantly less happy in their marriages, and more likely to contemplate divorce, when their wives take the lead in bread-winning.

As it is, Wilcox pointed out that there is already a marital divide between college-educated and less-educated Americans, a divide in which those without higher education have notably higher rates of divorce. Rising rates of unemployment among working class men could also further damage the state of marriage in this socio-economic group.

The statistical appendices to the report provided further information on this worrying trend. College educated women are now marrying at a higher rate than their peers. Not only that, but the divorce rate among these women is relatively low and has been dropping.

«In fact, college-educated women, once the leaders of the divorce revolution, now hold a more restrictive view of divorce than less well-educated women,» the report added.

Moreover, among those women who delay marriage past 30, college-educated women are the only ones becoming more likely to have children after marriage rather than before.

This positive trend is offset by the fact that college-educated Americans with happy, stable families aren’t having enough children to replace themselves. In 2004, 24% of women 40-44 years old with a bachelor’s degree were childless, compared to only 15% of those of the same age without a high school degree.

Reducing debt

Underlining the positive, Jeffrey Dew, an assistant professor at Utah State University, pointed out that the recession means that Americans are putting an end to their credit card binge.

By December 2008, U.S. consumers had amassed a staggering $988 billion in revolving debt, but in 2009 Americans reduced this debt by about $90 billion.

Dew cited research indicating that consumer debt plays a powerful role in eroding the quality of married life. Studies indicate that newlywed couples who take on substantial consumer debt become less happy in their marriages over time.

By contrast, newlywed couples who paid off any consumer debt they brought into their marriage or acquired early in their marriage had lower declines in their marital quality over time.

In one study, feeling that one’s spouse spent money foolishly increased the likelihood of divorce by 45% for both men and women. Only extramarital affairs and alcohol/drug abuse were stronger predictors of divorce.

Dew’s research also made an interesting point regarding married life. Materialistic spouses are also more likely to suffer from marital problems. These married couples base much of their happiness and self-worth on the material possessions they accumulate. So, when financial problems occur, they report more conflict in their marriage.

Financial bliss

Alex Roberts, an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values, cited data from the Department of Health and Human Services to show that the current crisis reveals once again that there are financial benefits to marriage that are lost when couples divorce.

Roberts noted that a family of three — two parents and a child — needs an income of $18,311 to be considered above the poverty line. If the parents maintain separate households, the total income needed to keep the three out of poverty jumps to $25,401.

So if the parents separate, they must earn $7,090 more (a 39% jump) to avoid poverty. «Marriage, it seems, still works to generate tremendous economies of scale — especially for those with low income,» Roberts observed.

Marriage also has a positive effect in building wealth. Roberts referred to research by economists Joseph Lupton and James P. Smith. They tracked the income and wealth of 7,608 heads of household between 1984 and 1989, and found that those who married saw income increases of 50% to 100%, and net wealth increases of about 400% to 600%.

Continuously married households had about double the income and four times the net worth of the divorced and never-married, on average.

What’s behind this marital advantage? Roberts said it could be partially explained by the tendency of high-earning, high-saving individuals to marry. It’s also been shown men who marry work harder and earn more than their unmarried peers.

Researchers, noted Roberts, have found that marriage is connected to norms and expectations of accountability and fiscal responsibility that encourage the wise use of resources.

This same effect does not happen in cohabiting couples, who are less likely to pool resources, or feel motivated to spend wisely and save.

We can’t reduce marriage merely to its economic benefits, Roberts conceded, but it certainly would be advantageous for society if there were a greater appreciation of marriage’s financial benefits. A point that policy-makers and politicians would do well to heed.

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