The Marriage Gap: Almost all new parents are married if rich; Few are married if poor. Why?

Marriage is commonplace and almost universal among the rich whereas it’s rare and unusual among the poor.

This is the remarkable finding from our new study released todayco-authored with University of Lincoln Professor Stephen McKay and using data from the Family Resources Survey and General Household Survey.

(See report in Sunday Telegraph)

Whereas 87% of the richest new parents – mothers with children under five – are married, just 24% of the poorest have tied the knot.

This finding highlights the Marriage Gap between haves and have-nots, at its most extreme between the top and bottom fifths of all families by household income. In today’s money this is equivalent to comparing those earning more than £43,000 with those earning less than £14,000.

Marriage among new parents matters a great deal. Our recent research had shown that parents who are married before they have a child are far more likely to stay together while bringing up their children.

The most recent announcement from the Office for National Statistics showing that 52.5% of births in 2014 were to married parents received almost no media coverage. And yet it is precisely the high rate of births outside of marriage than explains why Britain has one of the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe – surpassed only by Latvia, Denmark, Lithuania and Belgium.

The chart below shows the extent to which marriage varies by income among new parents.

53 The Marriage Gap between rich and poorIn our new study, we also found smaller but significant Marriage Gaps that have developed – especially since the 1980s – in other areas of life, reflecting big differences between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.

There are Marriage Gaps between those who do and don’t have a degree, have a job, live in their own home, or smoke. Age matters a great deal as well. We found that marriage is least common of all among the youngest mums under age 24, just 16% of whom are married. All of these factors are undoubtedly inter-related. But our analysis showed that they also have their own individual influence as well.

So what do these remarkable new findings tell us?

They tell us that poverty and inequality aren’t just about education and income. Both matter of course. But the big political debates tend to focus narrowly on these factors and ignore the way we do family life at home.

Until now, it was easy to explain away the long-term trend away from marriage as a general phenomenon that has affected everyone. Before the 1970s, almost all births were to couples who were married – rich and poor alike. But the widespread introduction of birth control in the 1970s changed everything, allowing couples to move in together without fear of pregnancy. Social norms were gradually swept away and cohabitation became the new norm. Today marriage is wholly unnecessary. And the cost of a wedding is enough to put anybody off. Couples can and do live together and have children whether they marry or not. Nobody bats an eyelid.

So why are the rich still marrying in their droves whereas for the poor marriage has become the exception?

Maybe it’s because the rich know something about marriage, that getting married signifies commitment, that the formal commitment of marriage makes it far more likely that couples will stay together for the long run, and that staying together means staying well-off and avoiding the big loss of assets and income associated with splitting up.

In other words, the rich know that splitting up makes people poor and that marriage is the best protection against that happening.

Anyone who cares about social mobility and inequality should be deeply concerned that the poor are not marrying. That’s the big message from our study. Now we need to find ways to encourage a revival of marriage among the poor.


7 thoughts on “The Marriage Gap: Almost all new parents are married if rich; Few are married if poor. Why?

  1. Nonmarriage isn’t just a function of having nothing material to gain (or, in a divorce, to lose). It’s a function of inner emotional security. People whose parents didn’t give them a sense of emotional security won’t believe in themself as much and won’t trust themselves, their partner, or marriage itself. (You get out of it what you put into it.)

  2. Is the concern the poor are not marrying? Should it not rather be that those who marry are less likely to remain poor? Why would there be an expectation that the unmarried generate equal wealth compared to a couple who have promised and given all their worldly goods, energy, purpose and commitment to each other for life? Especially when it comes to children.
    It stands to reason two people can manage the birth, nurture and bringing up of children than those alone or uncommitted. Two generate more than one. The fact more richer people are married is because they are richer for being married, not marrying because they are rich.

  3. Lies, damned lies … and statistics. Men aren’t getting married simply because the risks in a family court are far too great. Feminism is the issue. Why are we financially encouraging and giving incentives to have children? Just this week I’ve read another research document showing that single men are now a major and growing poverty “group”. Many of these men are single because the State and our court system makes it easy for them to be divorced by their partners. 70% approx of divorces are initiated by females – again, support and reasons to divorce “advised” and assisted to make false claims via organisations such as Womens Aid.

    • True that friend.

      Seems we can all agree there are times of unfullfillment and unhappiness in some relationships. It also seems reasonsble for each one in that relationship to want to please the other. But and if one departs that relationship, not wanting to bear the burden of it. Then the one who left is not entitled to the benifits ( children, money) either.

      If someone “feels” the burden outweighs the benifits and leaves. They leave both… the burden(s) and the benifit(s).

  4. Pingback: The case for marriage – the basics |

  5. Pingback: First marriage rates reach all time low, yet our married policy makers don’t think this matters |

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