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

~ NOVEMBER 2022 ~

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

The couple doesn’t share a joint bank account, split the cost of rent and other bills, and don’t have kids, though they do have a dog, named Goose. “We’re already saving a lot of money and splitting the cost on most things,” Mowery said. “I don’t understand how married couples are accumulating wealth in a way we’re not.”

It turns out Mowery and her live-in boyfriend aren’t alone. “As of 2019,” the Journal reported, “the median net worth for cohabiting couples age 25-34 was $17,372 compared to $68,210 for similarly aged married couples.” For singles, median net worth shrank to $7,341. That isn’t a financial discrepancy between the married and unmarried peers. It’s a financial chasm.

The data didn’t come from some conservative think tank promoting the virtues of marriage. The source was the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “The wealth gap between partnered and married couples is larger than one might expect,” Ana Kent, a senior researcher at the St. Louis Fed, said. “It’s so intriguing.”

The gap may be “intriguing” to economists at the Fed, or confounding to cohabitators like Mowery, but most Americans don’t need a Ph.D. in economics or sociology to understand it. One short sentence most married couples end their wedding vows with explains everything: “Till death do us part.”

Anyone who’s ever said those words in front of family and friends—and for many of us, before God—understands the terror those words invoke. And comfort. Those words change everything. Married people quickly go 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 such a thing involves. Marriage, when it works best, moves us from self to selflessness.

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

The article quickly rose up the ranks for the most viewed stories of the day, with over 600 comments by readers filled with insight and common sense. The prominent theme wasn’t judgment about Mowery’s choice to cohabitate. It was the fact that she and others like her, the Federal Reserve economist included, were surprised by the data.

Here’s one reader’s comment: “The mystery isn’t why married people are wealthier but why allegedly educated people think it shouldn’t be true,” wrote Sean McCoy.

And another. “Honestly, if a man and woman won’t commit to marriage then why commit to anything involving long-term financial goals,” wrote Megan Sell.

This comment echoed 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. “Marriage is a long-term commitment to legacy,” wrote Ida Byrd-Hill. “Cohabitating is about reduction of expenses in the short-term. This critical difference of philosophy is seen in wealth building.”

This comment may have been the most compelling. “Once you become married, if you spend money on frivolous things, you’re spending the family’s money, not your own,” wrote Brad Headley. “I barely spend anything on myself anymore other than the necessities.”

Unlike Mowery, the writer of the Journal‘s story, Julia Carpenter, seemed not merely 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 from the over 600 posts, saw the wealth gap as great news for people who get married—and stick it out. Indeed, you’d think journalists would be shouting the St. Louis Fed’s good news about marriage from the rooftops. And the good news about the links between marriage and happiness that’s been out for years. And the good news about the epic decline in divorce rates of first marriages in America, which reached a 50-year low in the 2020 census. And the good news that’s been around for decades on the emotional, social and educational advantages marriage confers to children.

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

Talk about advancing social justice? Marriage knows no class, racial or ethnic boundaries. Indeed, marriage may be the best social justice program ever invented to fight loneliness, entropy and poverty.

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

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

Despite the mounting evidence that marriage is a powerful social good, more young couples than ever are delaying it and moving in together, the Journal reported. The percentage of married adults declined from 60 percent in the 1990s to under 50 percent in 2019. Over that same period, the percentage of adults between 18 and 44 living with a partner soared 59 percent.

The Journal‘s reporting soon turned to editorializing, with Carpenter treating cohabitators and singles like some kind of victim class. “The skyrocketing value of assets—especially homes—is largely to blame for the growing gap,” Carpenter wrote. “And at a time when more people are staying single for longer, building wealth on your own is becoming increasingly difficult.”

In 2021, the Journal reported that married couples were twice as likely to buy a house, compared with singles. That’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 two times the rate of single men (9 percent).

“Most of my married friends have bought a house,” Mowery told the Journal. “I just don’t know how they did it. Everyone talks about how 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 J.D. in 1998 (preceded by giving birth to 3 wonderful children),” he wrote. “Being ‘invested’ in one another is very hard work, but if one ‘plays the long game’ for one’s relationship, it pays incredibly down the road.”

Lowery—and 20- and 30-somethings like her—should read Alice H’s post too. “Marriage commitment is much deeper than ‘feelings,’ though they matter,” she wrote. “One discovers the power of commitment exactly when ‘feelings’ are at their lowest. Commonly, married couples encounter a rough patch. Getting past that, resolving differences and coming out 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 through a lifetime is indeed a powerful adult experience. As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to his niece before her wedding day, “It’s not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

Those words are truer than ever. And why it’s time to start talking up marriage to young people. The good and profound nature of the institution and its positive effects on adults, children and society—including the positive wealth effect it creates.

Federal Reserve and Pew Research data proves it, and common sense—and a sense of common purpose—explains why.

A version of this article originally appeared here on

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