Many uneducated, lower-income men and women have yet another strike against them -- being single. A recent study from the Pew Research Center documents a growing and disturbing trend: while the overall marriage rate is declining, that decline has been much steeper for Americans without a four-year college degree. Less marriage for the less educated means a further widening of the gap between rich and poor.
"The trend for higher-income people to be more likely to marry contributes to [the wealth gap]," says Mariko Chang, an independent consultant for The Insight Center For Community Economic Development, a think tank based in Oakland, Calif., who sees this as a serious problem. Marriage has long been associated with greater wealth -- a 2005 study at Ohio State University found that someone who married and stayed married for 10 years had nearly four times more wealth than their single counterpart. And that gap is even wider when it comes to the median net worth (the difference between what the household owns and what it owes). According to Census data, the average median net worth of married households is seven times the wealth of unmarried households.
In 1970, about 88 percent of college-educated men were married, compared with 86 percent of those without a college degree, a 4 percent difference, according to Richard Fry, a senior economist with the Pew Research Center. By 2007 that gap had grown to 13 percent: 69 percent of college-educated men were married, while only 56 percent of those without a college degree married. Perhaps a better way to illustrate the shift is the growing number of single moms: In 2009 a whopping 41 percent of babies were born to single moms according to the National Vital Statistics Report. "Part of what's going on is that increasingly, the married couples are college-educated men and women who are better off financially," Fry said.
“Low-income youth aspire to marriage, but only when a certain economic bar is met.”
The growing marriage gap is particularly worrisome because the wealth gap between the college educated and those with only a high school degree or less has already been widening in the past 30 years. In the late 1970s, a young worker with a college degree earned 10 percent more than a young worker with a high school degree. By 2010, college-educated workers were earning about 50 percent more than those with just a high school education.
Karina Colin, age 30, and her boyfriend, David Garcia, age 33, exemplify the financial struggles some unmarried couples face. They've been living together for five years and have a three-year-old child. Colin, who didn't attend college, is an orthodontist assistant but gets no health care insurance, nor does her boyfriend, a part-time dental lab assistant. She says they haven’t tied the knot because she still needs to save up enough money to get a divorce from her first husband. She and Garcia take turns providing child care for their children while the other works. Colin earns $1,300 a month while Garcia makes $800, barely enough to cover their $1,100 in rent and other expenses. Colin says she is frugal, rarely uses credit cards and only buys clothes when the children really need them. She's trying to get another part-time job on the weekends to supplement the family's income. "It's hard," Colin says. "Every month I get paid, by the next day, my paycheck is gone."
Contrast that with Mike Sprouse, a 36-year-old chief marketing officer for a large internet marketing company in Chicago. He said finances were a greater struggle when he lived with an ex-girlfriend for two-and-half years. In September, 2010, he wed a teacher and children's book author. They were able to pool their resources to finance major home improvements, combine their 401Ks, which have both earned solid returns, and invest in technology stocks which have fared well. "We got married because we love each other, but the financial benefits of being married have been exceptional for us," he said.