The Impact of Marriage on Income Inequality

Source: Vital Statistics Birth Data, 1990 and 2009, Via

An article ran in The New York Times over the weekend about the impact of marriage on income inequality. The journalist followed the lives of two mothers who work at the same company—one is married and the other is a single mother. What he found, along with conclusions from research, was that marriage plays a significant role in determining on what side of the income inequality divide a family will be.

With a presidential election upon us in a few months and the political machines in full swing lobbing ad hominem attacks back and forth, one of the major issues is income inequality. While both political parties blame one another, research has demonstrated that there may be other causes at play than just the tax code.

The NYT reports:

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns—as opposed to changes in individual earnings—may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

There are a number of factors that play a role in the discussion of marriage, family, and child-rearing on a societal level. For instance, the education level of the mother influences the likelihood that she will have a child out of wedlock. Even though the national numbers across educational levels show that 41% of all children are born to unwed mothers, only 8% of births to college-educated mothers are outside of marriage. The numbers for mothers with high school education or less are around 60%. In addition, these trends transcend racial lines.

The staggering changes in family structures witnessed in the United States in the last few decades have impacted people dramatically during the recent recession. The article notes:

Economic woes speed marital decline, as women see fewer “marriageable men.” The opposite also holds true: marital decline compounds economic woes, since it leaves the needy to struggle alone.

“The people who need to stick together for economic reasons don’t,” said Christopher Jencks, a Harvard sociologist. “And the people who least need to stick together do.”

Changes in family structure do not explain the gains of the very rich—the much-discussed “1 percent” and the richest among them. That story largely spills from Wall Street trading floors and corporate boardrooms.

But for inequality more broadly, Mr. Western found that the growth in single parenthood in recent decades accounted for 15 percent to 25 percent of the widening income gaps. (Estimates depend on the time period, the income tiers and the definition of inequality.) Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution found it to account for 21 percent. Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute, comparing lower-middle- and upper-middle-income families, found that single parenthood explained about 40 percent of inequality’s growth.

There are other intangible, non-economic factors in marriage that contribute to the stability of the family. Having two parents in the home means that there are more people to spend time with the children. While single parents find themselves pulled between jobs and children’s school and activities, two-parent families can “divide and conquer” when necessary. This lowers stress levels and promotes working together in the family.

In addition, the presence of both parents in the home brings a positive influence for the entire family. Brad Wilcox and Carlos Cavallé report:

For children, marriage matters. Children reared outside of an intact family are significantly less likely to acquire the human and social capital they need to become well-adjusted, productive workers. Those from intact, married families are more likely to succeed in school, graduate from college, and be gainfully employed as adults. And men who get and stay married work harder, smarter, and longer hours, and they earn between 10 and 24 percent more money. This is the case in countries as varied as Israel, Italy, Mexico, and the United States. For men and women alike, marriage fosters financially prudent behavior, including higher rates of savings and greater accumulation of assets. In these ways and many more, marriage is an important generator of social, human, and financial capital for economies around the world, and countries that enjoy a comparatively strong marriage culture—such as China, India, and Malaysia—are likely to reap long-term economic dividends.

It is always fulfilling to see when secular social science confirms God’s intentions for the family—even when they don’t set out to do so. In Genesis 2:24 we read, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” From this point forward, God clearly communicates that his design for the family is one man married to one woman for a lifetime. They work together to rear their children and provide lasting stability to their family that will hopefully be reproduced in the next generation.

Of course we encounter the fall of mankind in Genesis 3 that creates new difficulties for subsequent generations to fulfill this God-given design. However, we can even see in this article that God’s design is the best plan for marriage, family, and economic well-being.

As we endure the burdensome political process leading up to the election in November, we will hear politicians proclaiming they have the answers to our society’s economic woes. Most of their “solutions” will revolve around taxes, job creation, and government programs. Perhaps they should look at something else—the intact family.


Jason DeParle, “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do,’” The New York Times, July 14, 2012.

W. Bradford Wilcox and Carlos Cavallé, “The Sustainable Demographic Dividend,” in What Do Marriage & Fertility Have to Do with the Economy? (National Marriage Project, 2011).