Marriage rates in the United States have been declining steadily across races over the last decade, with those who do marry doing so much later in life. African Americans and those with less than a high school education, however, have been marrying far less and much later in life (if at all) than whites and those with more education.
This marital stratification by race and education is what Princeton University researcher Daniel Schneider set out to understand in a recent report. The study, released earlier this month, reveals that wealth accumulation--such as owning a car, a home or having money in the bank--is a determining factor for first marriage. In other words, those with greater personal assets are more likely to marry, and to do so earlier in lives.
Schneider says that because African Americans and those with less education are among the most systemically disadvantaged social groups, they are less able to accumulate wealth and thus less likely to marry, despite the fact that young Americans across races consistently report a desire to wed.
Why does material wealth matter for marriage? And why do certain groups shoulder this burden more than others? HuffPost Weddings spoke with Schneider to find out.
What are the major findings of your research?
Increasingly, all Americans are marrying later, and to some degree less, but we’re really seeing the divide emerge between blacks and whites and the more and less educated. Increasingly whites [are] marrying more than blacks and those with more education--in this case high school or college, versus less than high school--are marrying at higher rates as well. My finding was really to apply a recent insight from ethnographic qualitative work that showed young people talking about the importance of having some wealth--money in the bank, a car, even a home, for marriage--to understand this puzzle of stratification. Because what we see in America is a deep, entrenched inequality in wealth by race and by education, and we also then see the same differentiation in marriage behavior. I think the key result here is that when we account for the importance of wealth for first first marriage, we can explain not everything, but a pretty large portion of these gaps that have emerged in marriage by race and education.
Why is wealth accumulation so important for first marriages?
There’s one argument that’s a cultural argument: the social standard for marriage has changed in a way to make wealth important. It’s no longer enough to get married and then try to make a go of it together, you really need to show that you’ve economically arrived before marriage; that to respectably marry means to have these assets in a way that it didn’t before. So what these assets are about is of cultural significance, they mark a change in the meaning of marriage in America.
I think the other option is that wealth matters in a way now that it didn’t before, perhaps because American life is increasingly economically insecure. And perhaps people feel the need to have money in the bank, a car, a home because these are things one can fall back on when times are tough; when hours are cut back or jobs are lost. In this way, wealth can protect a relationship. We know there’s lots of research that suggests that economic hard times are really big stressors on relationship quality, so perhaps people want assets now in a way they didn’t before because they anticipate these hard times and are looking to have that buffer in place.
Why is this stratification happening by race and education?
On the one hand, there’s been less inter-generational transference of wealth over time for quite a long time for African Americans as compared to whites … For instance, for whites, many count on their families for a first down payment on a home. A home is a key way in which Americans accumulate wealth in this country, but many African Americans can’t rely on their families for that. So in this way, a lack of assets compounds across generations.
A second explanation that people have suggested is that African American communities are much less well-served by banks and other financial institutions, so they don’t have access to those same tools that whites have to build wealth. To build wealth, everybody needs help--you need an IRA, you need a 401K, you need a bank account, you need not to have your wealth suctioned off by payday lenders and check cashers--and there’s a real inequality in what services are available to folks.
[For those with less education] part of it may be that with education comes greater financial savvy; the ability to make good investment decisions and all that sort of stuff.
Why does it matter than people aren’t getting married?
If we were in Europe, I don’t think we’d be concerned about it. In Europe, we see a very different set of family structures and behaviors than in the U.S. There, we see a lot of long-term cohabitation that seems to have taken the place of marriage ... [In the U.S.] I think we care for two reasons: The first reason we care about these changes in marriage is that they’ve just been so enormous [here]. The second is because these changes in marriage, particularly the way marriage has become stratified [by race and education], has implications for inequality. In the U.S., we don’t see that same kind of stable, long-term cohabitation [that we do in Europe] … Cohabitation in the U.S. tends to be short and churning. [In the U.S.], marriage delivers these positive benefits for men, women and children that we don’t find with American-style cohabitation … The already disadvantaged are blocked from marrying--which I should note Americans report overwhelmingly wanting to do--because of a lack of wealth and a lack of resources. I think we’re concerned about that because that could perpetuate these existing inequalities.
Why does it matter that people are marrying later in life?
I think the research suggests that somewhat later marriage is not a bad thing at all. People getting married at 25, 26, 28, whatever it might be, it’s not so bad. What people become increasingly concerned about is when we see higher rates of non-marriage coupled with [child birth]. It really has consequences for inequality … because marriage seems to have these benefits [for married couples and their children]. If we do see less marriage among these already disadvantaged groups, that could further disadvantage them and cement inequality.
As I described before, people widely aspire to marriage, but it seems that they’re blocked from that by these structural constraints on wealth.
So what can be done to help disadvantaged folks get married and reduce inequality?
What I’m interested in is this: Can the poor save and how can we help the poor save? Again, there’s this deep wealth inequality in American life and there are really stark numbers on the degree to which many Americans have been unable to save and really lack assets; 30 to 40 percent of Americans are asset-poor … Something like 25 percent of Americans are certain they couldn’t come up with $2,000 should they come upon an emergency in the next 30 days. So we know there’s a lack of wealth in many American households … I think this work suggests that even helping people have a small buffer of money in the bank, or own a car, which is a much more modest asset, may have really important implications for the course of people’s lives. I think there’s some policy implications that make a case for asset-building for the poor.
Given that research has shown that financial instability in marriage often leads to divorce, would you say it’s a good thing that people are looking to achieve financial independence and stability before they get married?
At the individual level, it’s pretty clearly established that people who lose their jobs, or go through unemployment, that can have negative effects for divorce … If people are accumulating wealth because they desire to have that stability and that security in the face of what might be economic turmoil, and if it does indeed play that role, then that seems like a positive. On the other hand, it does seem like there might be some negatives if this is a new standard for wealth that has come along, in which there are some drawbacks in the stratification of marriage.
More:Education And Marriage Black Marriage Education And Marriage Rates African American Marriage Personal Assets And Marriage
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more