Marriage & Money: My, How Things Have Changed!

Young married couple. (Image credit:

The gap between rich and poor isn't just about money. A new study finds that Americans with low income and education are less likely to marry than those who are better off.

The trend, which occurs over a background of declining marriage rates, suggest that while Americans of low socioeconomic status are just as likely as well-off Americans to want to get married, they place a high premium on financial stability before marriage, a bar they may never meet.

An ambivalent public

The study, conducted by Pew Research Center in conjunction with TIME, used analysis of economic and demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau combined with an October 2010 telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 2,691 adults. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

Overall, the data revealed a deep ambivalence toward marriage, Pew reported. Nearly 40 percent of Americans say marriage is becoming obsolete, an 11-percent increase since 1978. The number of married couples has dropped, too: In 1960, 72 percent of American adults were married. In 2008, that number was 52 percent.

Nonetheless, 69 percent of people say that single women having children is bad for society, and 61 percent say kids need both a mom and a dad to grow up happily. When asked if trends toward cohabitation, unmarried couples raising children and gay couples raising children are bad for society, 43 percent answered "yes" to each question.

Money and marriage

The decline of marriage is class-based, the study found. In 1960, people with a college degree were only 4 percentage points more likely to be married than people with a high school education or less. By 2008, that gap widened to 16 percentage points. Just under half (48 percent) of people without college degrees were married in 2008, compared to 64 percent of college grads.

Nonetheless, both groups place a similar value on marriage, the survey found. The difference was that 38 percent of people with less education said financial stability was an important condition for marriage, compared with 21 percent of college-educated people.

Still, the survey found that Americans are optimistic about marriage, with 67 percent saying they're upbeat about the future of marriage and family.

Speaking of family, Americans take it seriously. More than three-quarters say family is the most important element of their life. And the meaning of "family" has broadened. Eighty-eight percent of people view a childless married couple as a family. Nearly as many (80 percent), say a cohabitating couple with a child is a family, and 86 percent say a single parent and a child is a family. Just over 65 percent say a gay or lesbian couple raising a child is a family.

Americans are also happy with their families. Three-quarters say they're "very satisfied" with their family life. Eighty-five percent say their current family is as close as or closer than the family in which they grew up.

The full report is available at the Pew Research Center.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.