The Best Way to Close the Wealth Gap in America? Try Marriage

Melissa Mowery, a 30-year-old communications executive in Asheville, North Carolina, has been with her boyfriend, Alex Feiszli, for five years and the couple has been living together for four, we learned from a The Wall Street Journal story earlier this month about the widening wealth gap between married and unmarried people.

The couple do not share a joint bank account, share the cost of rent and other bills, and do not have children, although they do have a dog named Goose. “We already save a lot of money and share the cost on most things,” Mowery said. “I don’t understand how married couples accumulate wealth in a way that we don’t.”

It turns out Mowery and her live-in boyfriend aren’t alone. “From 2019,” the Journal reported, “the median net worth of cohabiting couples ages 25-34 was $17,372 compared to $68,210 for married couples of the same age.” For singles, the average net worth fell to $7,341. It is not an economic discrepancy between the married and unmarried peers. It is an economic abyss.

The data did not come from a conservative think tank that promotes the virtues of marriage. The source was the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “The wealth gap between partners and married couples is larger than one might expect,” said Ana Kent, a senior researcher at St. Louis Fed. “It is so exiting.”

The gap may be “intriguing” to economists at the Fed, or confusing to roommates like Mowery, but most Americans don’t need a Ph.D. in economics or sociology to understand it. A short phrase most married couples end their wedding vows with says it all: “Till death do us part.”

Anyone who has ever said those words in front of family and friends—and for many of us, in front of God—understands the horror these words invoke. And comfort. Those words change everything. Married people quickly move from two separate lives to one, with an eye toward building a future together. And that future likely includes children and the planning, responsibility, compromise, and shared sacrifices that such things entail. Marriage, at its best, moves us from self to selflessness.

Midway through Journal Mowery revealed that she and her partner have discussed marriage, but never seriously. “I worry a little less than I thought I would about marriage,” she admitted. “Once you start living together, it almost feels like you’ve made that commitment.”

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The article quickly climbed the rankings of the most viewed stories of the day with over 600 comments from readers full of insight and common sense. The prominent theme was not the judgment of Mowery’s choice to live together. It was the fact that she and others like her, the Federal Reserve economist included, were surprised by the data.

Here’s a reader’s comment: “The mystery is not why married people are richer, but why supposedly educated people think it shouldn’t be true,” wrote Sean McCoy.

And another. “Honestly, if a man and a woman don’t want to commit to marriage, why commit to something that involves long-term financial goals,” wrote Megan Sell.

This comment was echoed by dozens of others: “As my wife likes to remind me, ‘I’m not your roommate,'” wrote reader Tony H. “Call me old-fashioned, but there’s a difference.”

Here’s another one. “Marriage is a long-term commitment to inheritance,” wrote Ida Byrd-Hill. “Cohabitation is about reducing expenses in the short term. This critical difference in philosophy is seen in wealth building.”

This comment may have been the most persuasive. “Once you’re married, if you spend money on frivolous things, you’re spending the family’s money, not your own,” Brad Headley wrote. “I spend almost nothing on myself more than necessary.”

Unlike Mowery, the author of Journal‘s story, Julia Carpenter, seemed not only surprised by the data, but angry about it. “The wealth gap between single and married Americans has more than doubled in the last decade – how do you get ahead when it’s just you?” she said.

Most of the readers, judging by the more than 600 posts, saw the wealth gap as good news for people who get married – and stick with it. In fact, you’d think reporters would shout St. Louis Fed’s good news about marriage from the rooftops. And the good news about the links between marriage and happiness that has been out there for years. And the good news about the epic drop in divorce rates for first marriages in America, which hit a 50-year low in the 2020 census. And the good news that has existed for decades about the emotional, social and educational benefits marriage brings to children.

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Couple looking at house for sale
Married couples are twice as likely to buy a home compared to singles, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2021.
Getty Images

Are you talking about promoting social justice? Marriage knows no class, racial or ethnic boundaries. In fact, marriage may be the best social justice program ever invented to combat loneliness, entropy, and poverty.

“You sometimes hear people say it’s harder and harder to get ahead in America,” said JP De Gance, president of Communio, a nonprofit that works closely with churches across America to strengthen marriage. Newsweek. “But that’s not the case if you follow the age-old, unwritten cultural rules for success: get a high school diploma, get a job, then get married before you have kids.”

College isn’t even necessary to reach the middle class, De Gance said, citing studies by the Pew Research Center and the American Enterprise Institute. “For millennials who never earned a college degree but still followed these steps, 82 percent were in the middle-income or high-income bracket by the time they reached their 30s. A total of 97 percent of these non-college-educated millennials were not living in poverty.”

Despite growing evidence that marriage is a powerful social good, more young couples than ever are postponing it and moving in together, Journal reported. The share of married adults fell from 60 percent in the 1990s to below 50 percent in 2019. During the same period, the share of adults between 18 and 44 living with a partner increased by 59 percent.

That Journal‘s reporting soon turned to editorial, with Carpenter treating cohabiters and singles as a kind of victim class. “The skyrocketing value of assets — especially housing — is largely to blame for the widening gap,” Carpenter wrote. “And at a time when more people are staying single for longer, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to build wealth on your own.”

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In 2021, Journal reported that married couples were twice as likely to buy a house compared to singles. It’s not news: Married people have always been the primary driver of home sales in America. As the report noted, more single women than ever are buying homes (17 percent of all sales)—nearly twice the number of single men (9 percent).

“Most of my married friends have bought a house,” Mowery shared Journal. “I just don’t know how they did it. Everyone talks about when you get married you accumulate wealth, but I don’t know what that means.”

For answers, Lowery and Carpenter should read Robert M’s post. “My wife and I have been together for 43 years and she has worked full time for the past 23 years after getting her JD in 1998 (in addition to giving birth to 3 wonderful children),” he wrote. “Being ‘invested’ in each other is a lot of hard work, but if you ‘play the long game’ for your relationship, it pays off immensely down the road.”

Lowery – and 20- and 30-somethings like her – should also read Alice H’s post. “Marriage commitment is much deeper than ‘feelings,’ even if they matter,” she wrote. “One discovers the power of commitment precisely when ‘feelings’ are at their lowest. Usually married couples encounter a difficult problem. To get past it, resolve differences, and come out on the other side transformed, even more strongly committed and appreciative, is an indescribably powerful , adult experience.”

Alice H. is right. Staying committed to one person for a lifetime is truly a powerful coming-of-age experience. As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to his niece before her wedding day: “It is not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” These words are truer than ever. And why it’s time to start talking about marriage to young people. The good and deep character of the institution and its positive effects on adults, children and society – including the positive wealth effect it creates.

Data from the Federal Reserve and Pew Research prove it, and common sense—and a sense of common purpose—explains why.


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