Americans have the best chance of becoming wealthy if they marry but remain childless, study shows

Becoming wealthy and creating a happy family are two key components to achieving the American Dream, but do marriage and children have any impact on your chances of becoming rich?

“Marriage substantially increases a person’s likelihood of becoming affluent,” says Mark R. Rank, Ph.D., professor of social work at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.

New study shows marriage substantially increases a person's likelihood of becoming affluent.
New study shows marriage substantially increases a person’s likelihood of becoming affluent.

“By age 45, 33 percent of married people and only 13 percent of nonmarried people will experience at least one year of affluence. By age 65, 42 percent of married people and only 18 percent of nonmarried people will experience at least one year of affluence. Having children, however, significantly lowers the probability of becoming wealthy for all people.”

Rank is the third author of the study “Does Marriage Increase the Odds of Affluence? Exploring Life Course Probabilities” in the November 2003 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family. In this study, affluence is considered ten times the poverty level for a specific household. Based on U.S. Census Bureau data from 2001, the poverty level for a two-person household would be $11,239 a year, and affluence for the same household would be $112,390 a year.

“There are several possible reasons why married couples have a better chance of becoming wealthy,” says Rank, author of the upcoming book “One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All.”

“Married couples have more than one adult wage earner to send to the labor market, there is the possibility for a division of labor that allows the higher wage earner to devote more time to their occupation, and in general, marital household expenses are less per person than are expenses for singles living alone, especially in terms of housing.”

Rank notes that the main reason why children have such a negative effect on someone’s chances of becoming wealthy is that households with children face considerably greater costs and expenditures, such as daycare and healthcare.

Looking at race and gender too

The study, co-authored by Thomas A. Hirschl and Joyce Altobelli from the Department of Rural Sociology at Cornell University, also looks at how marriage affects the probability of becoming wealthy for women, men, whites and blacks.

“Although there appears to be a marital advantage for both races, the advantage is much more palpable for whites,” says Rank. “We believe that the white’s advantage in marital affluence is related to their racial advantage in asset ownership, which, in turn, is related to racial inequality inherent to the structural evolution of American society.”

The study also shows that the power of marriage to deliver affluence for women is extremely strong. “Nonmarried women have low odds of affluence relative to married women,” notes Rank. “This stems from the fact that nonmarried women tend to make less money than nonmarried men. The marital advantage for men is not so clear- cut. Over the life course, married men appear to financially outperform nonmarried men, but the difference between married men and nonmarried men is trivial in terms of statistical significance.”

Rank says the study is based on a unique analysis of a series of life tables constructed from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). The PSID is a longitudinal survey of a representative sample of U.S. individuals and their families interviewed annually since 1968.

Funding for the PSID has come from a number of government agencies, foundations and other organizations. While the PSID’s original funding agency was the Office of Economic Opportunity of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the study’s major funding sources are now the National Science Foundation and the National Institute on Aging.