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Money, Education and Marriage: The New Relationship

A couple who won a chance to wed on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building in New York on Valentine's Day, February 14
A couple who won a chance to wed on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building in New York on Valentine's Day, February 14

FAITH LAPIDUS: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus.

BOB DOUGHTY: And I'm Bob Doughty. Back in May, we did a program about untraditional couples in the United States. Since then there have been some developments.

FAITH LAPIDUS: For example, same-sex couples now have a right to marry in the state of New York. New York became the sixth and largest state to make same-sex marriage legal. The new law took effect in late July.

BOB DOUGHTY: And there are new findings about cohabitating couples in America. This week on our program, we look at some of the reasons why more couples are deciding to live together without getting married.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And, later, we tell you about another development, although this one involves a traditional group. More married couples are staying married.


BOB DOUGHTY: Population experts at the Census Bureau say cohabitation rates jumped between two thousand nine and two thousand ten. There was a thirteen percent increase in the number of couples who started living together without getting married first.

What could have caused such a big increase in just one year? The Great Recession -- the worst downturn in America's economy since the Great Depression in the nineteen thirties. Officially the recession lasted eighteen months. The economy began to grow again in June of two thousand nine.

But the Commerce Department now says the recession was even worse than it thought. And the recovery has been slower than expected. Some economists are warning of the possibility of another recession, a double dip.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Researchers say the Great Recession played a big part in pushing cohabitation rates higher. Now, almost one in ten opposite-sex couples in the United States live together outside marriage.

Increasingly a major difference between couples who get married and couples who do not is money.

Charlie Pinto married his girlfriend in New Jersey earlier this year. Both of them are twenty-six. They met in college, dated for a while, then moved in together. Charlie admits the only way they could pay for the wedding they wanted was with help from their parents.

CHARLIE PINTO: "We wouldn’t have been able to have a wedding if it wasn’t for our families because we just don’t have the money to spend.”

Charlie works for a start-up Internet company. His wife, Tracey, is a special education teacher.

Charlie says the wedding cost more than twenty-five thousand dollars. That is typical. A popular wedding website took a survey of American couples. found that in two thousand nine, the average couple spent almost twenty-seven thousand dollars on their wedding.

For some couples, that price may be out of reach.

Yet no one has to spend that much. A judge or court clerk can perform a marriage ceremony for as little as twenty-five dollars in some states.

BOB DOUGHTY: The cost of a wedding is not the only financial factor that couples consider in deciding whether and when to get married. Many people also think about whether they can afford to take care of a family.

D’Vera Cohn is a researcher and writer for the Pew Research Center. Her team did an opinion survey asking people if they thought it was important to be a good provider in order to be married.

D’VERA COHN: “Most people say it’s very important for a man to be able to support a family in order to marry, and about a third say it’s important for a woman to be able to support a family in order to marry.”

Americans may agree that couples should be financially secure before they get married. Yet the weak economy has made financial security even harder to reach. The unemployment rate doubled between two thousand seven and two thousand nine. The rate has fallen but still it was 9.1 percent in July.

FAITH LAPIDUS: The difficulty of finding and keeping a job may be one reason why some couples are choosing not to marry. D'Vera Cohn says it might also be a reason why more couples are deciding to live together.

D’VERA COHN: “We asked cohabiters whether household finances played a role in their decision to move in together. And about a third of them said it did -- of couples who had ever lived together, people who had ever lived as an unmarried couple. So there are indications that people are thinking about money when they’re cohabitating.”

In other words, couples find they can save money by living together. But they may not feel they have enough money to get married.

Brad Wilcox is a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and head of a pro-marriage group, the National Marriage Project. He says most Americans today expect to live a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle after they get married. And that kind of life -- a house, a car, nice clothes -- is hard for those who do not have much money.

BOB DOUGHTY: Researchers have found something else that increasingly influences decisions about marriage: a college education. Fifty years ago, about three-fourths of American adults were married, no matter how much education they had.

Today, only slightly more than half of adults are married. And most of those married people have college degrees.

Remember Charlie Pinto, the man in New Jersey who got married this year? He and Tracey are examples of this big change in American society.

REPORTER: "Did you both go to college?"

CHARLIE PINTO: "Yes. We did go to college. She went to college as well as me."

REPORTER: "And graduate school?"

CHARLIE PINTO: "No, but that is probably going to be planned for her at some time in the future."

FAITH LAPIDUS:This connection between education and marriage seems to be having several effects. D’Vera Cohn at the Pew Research Center says the first is that Americans are waiting longer to get married.

D’VERA COHN: "In general, college-educated people marry at later ages. Some of that is associated with waiting for their education to be done and to get established in a career.”

In other words, marriage now often gets delayed until people finish college, then maybe graduate school, then establish a career.

American women now marry for the first time at a median age of twenty-six. Median means half are older and half are younger. The median age for men is twenty-eight.

Men and women are getting married five years later than they did in the nineteen fifties, and a year later than they did twenty years ago.

BOB DOUGHTY: A second effect of education relates again to money. Some people believe they do not have enough money to get married. But getting married can make a financial difference.

Pew researchers found that married couples age thirty to forty-four without college degrees earned about twenty percent more than similar couples who only lived together. Couples in their thirties and early forties with college degrees earned more than twice as much as unmarried, less-educated adults of the same age.

D'Vera Cohn says one reason is probably children.

D’VERA COHN: “What we found was that cohabiters who did not have college degrees were much more likely than cohabiters who do have college degrees to have children in the household, maybe from a prior relationship, maybe outside of marriage, and that really affects their ability to bring in good income.”

In short, unmarried couples without college degrees are more likely to have children to support. Researchers say couples with college degrees rarely have children unless they are married.

Combined, these factors have reshaped what an American family means. More children than in the past grow up with only one parent or with adults they are not related to. It might be a mother's boyfriend or a father's girlfriend. More adults are staying single or staying single longer. And marriage is becoming less common, at least among people who did not go to college.

Traditional nuclear families -- meaning married parents with children -- are now in the minority.


FAITH LAPIDUS: Some couples cannot afford to get married. Other couples cannot afford to get divorced. Sanford Ain says the Great Recession has forced some people to stay together -- and he should know.

Mr. Ain is a divorce lawyer in Washington and a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. He says in the last five years, fewer people have come to his office seeking a divorce.

SANFORD AIN: "People are just unable to afford to get divorced and create two households. They’re forced to remain together, at least for the time being."

As a result, he says, many couples may be trying harder to make their relationship work.

SANFORD AIN: “Whereas before, when people had the economic wherewithal to separate more easily, they were less inclined to make their marriage work. Now I think people are forced to make their marriage work for the benefit of themselves and their children."

BOB DOUGHTY: Ending a relationship might seem easier for couples who are unmarried and unhappy. But Mr. Ain has seen an increase in those who wish they could break up, but do not know how to split their money fairly.

SANFORD AIN: “We’re also seeing a rise in disagreements among people who are living together -- unmarried cohabitants who have built up equity in properties and savings accounts and other ways that are trying to figure out how to resolve those because there aren’t laws that clearly define what the rights are of unmarried cohabitants.”

Saying goodbye is not so simple when you own a house together or have joint finances or other legal responsibilities as a couple.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Sanford Ain is in his mid-sixties. In his generation, he says, most people got married right after high school or college. Does he have an opinion about whether waiting is good or bad?

SANFORD AIN: "I think what’s important is that people reach a certain level of maturity before making any commitment, and certainly a commitment as important as marriage."

In nineteen eighty, the American divorce rate was about fifty percent. That only means the number of couples who got divorced was about half the number who got married that year. That was right after legal changes around the country made it easier for couples to get divorced.

But some people get married and divorced more than once. So measuring the exact divorce rate is difficult. But members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers believe that not as many couples are getting divorced anymore. And recent census data showed that, compared to thirty years ago, more younger women are staying married.

One reason might be that many of them grew up with divorced parents and want to try hard to avoid a repeat.

In two thousand nine, among women who had ever been married, only one-fourth of those in their twenties, thirties and forties had ever been divorced. But of course, fewer of them had ever been married to begin with.


BOB DOUGHTY: Our program was written by Kelly Nuxoll and produced by Brianna Blake. You can find our earlier program about untraditional couples at I'm Bob Doughty.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I'm Faith Lapidus. Listen again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.