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With More Options for Marriage, Income Inequality Increases

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An article on The Atlantic brought new research on the growth of income inequality to my attention. The article explains that the cause of today’s income disparity between the wealthy and the rest of the country is explained by the plot of the film When Harry Met Sally — or the increasingly common occurrence of marriages containing individuals well-matched on two specific factors: socio-economic status and education level.

The paper with the new research is available from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Over the past five decades, men and women are more likely to wed partners who are in the same socio-economic status group. As more couples fall into this kind of homogeneity, a feedback effect takes place. In fact, society today is more like it has been throughout most of history, where classes determine socialization and procreation, building generational wealth. The culture in twentieth century United States stands out as a contrast to most of Western history because the equal rights movement and other social causes temporarily shifted the country’s consciousness, and disenfranchised communities sought ways to improve their chances of becoming a part of the middle class machine from a societal perspective.

Europeans came to America before this country’s founding for a variety of reasons, but one of these was economic freedom. Although many European countries had made inroads towards economic mobility, Europeans with wealthy parents but no inheritance would get the opportunity to thrive in a new country. And for the most part, this worked out well for them. Many of the descendants of early settlers have held onto generational wealth obtained primarily by being the first Europeans to occupy land on this continent.

This particular American Dream hasn’t worked out as well for the subsequent immigrants to this country, which things getting progressively worse for each successive wave of immigration, but the earlier a family arrived in the United States, the better chance they have of being part of the wealthy class today.

Until this point, the availability of economically-compatible spouses were somewhat limited. People married their neighbors. Parents and community leaders arranged marriages (or just made suggestions) for their children based on compatibility factors that made sense for those families or communities. It was common in this country for a man with a good, upper middle-class job to marry a woman from a poorer family. Or his secretary.

Over the last fifty years, four specific societal changes affected the choices people had in a mate.

1. Socio-economic situations have become more complex.

Upward economic mobility became more of a reality not just for white European male immigrants, but for women and other non-white men. Men and women began working at the same companies, at the same levels. Today’s result of this advancement for women is that we have corporate Vice Presidents who marry other corporate Vice Presidents. We have managers marrying other managers.

And why not? People with similar roles have much in common, making a marriage more social than perhaps has been the traditional case. People with similar roles also have similar independent incomes.

2. Travel is easier and more affordable.

While historically, familial relationships were limited to the confines of a community, distant communities are now closer together. Cars are prevalent, so it doesn’t take long to get from one city to another. Travel by airplane, despite what seems to be an non-stop rise in airfares, is more affordable, and long-distance relationships are possible.

Also aiding long-distance relationships are advancements in communication technologies. While nothing is better than being with your loved one in person, a couple can now stay in virtual constant communication regardless of where in the world they might be.

3. Social acceptance of non-traditional unions is more common.

American society still has a long way to go before racism is no longer a major concern, but there used to be a time in many states during which racial intermarriages were illegal. The Supreme Court rules that no state could instate such a discriminatory law, and this, the eventual social acceptance of such relationships, and other changes in the workforce that gave more opportunities for non-white workers to succeed, increased the pool of potential mates.

And the eventual acceptance of same-sex marriage continues on that path; more and more, people will be able to (legally, with all the benefits thereto, and with societal acceptance) choose to spend their lives with partners with very similar backgrounds, instilling homogeneity for future generations.

4. Everyone has an opportunity to go to college.

For the most part of the last century, society in the United States has been promoting college. Through the GI Bill, easy access to loans for tuition, and employers who value a college degree, more and more citizens of the United States have been attending college. And an increasing proportion of these university students are women.

While it has always been the case that college graduates tend to marry other college graduates, these used to comprise just a small percentage of all relationships. Again, social trends over the past fifty years have changed the landscape. College degrees are much more common and men and women have an easier time finding compatible partners who are also college educated.

These four changes to society in the United States have widened the pool of available partners who are compatible in education and socio-economic status. This compatibility is not a bad thing. If I’m going to share my life with a partner, I would be expect to be able to communicate about issues that are important to me, and for her to be able to express her ideas intelligently — my hope is that she would challenge me intellectually.

Add this into the new American Dream, which seems to be to pursue individual wealth regardless of others, and you have people who seek out partners along compatibility dimensions such as wealth and education. Because of equal opportunity across sex lines, those types of relationships are more available than they were during the period of this country’s history with the most economic mobility, 1960 through 1980.

The promise of equal opportunity in the workforce for women started in the 1960s, but wasn’t realized or culturally significant until the 1980s. The evidence may be in popular films from the 1980s, depicting more women in traditionally male working roles and with higher education, and of course, in When Harry Met Sally.

If you’re born to a poor family today, the biggest likelihood for your future is that you will stay poor. That’s more like most of Western history than it is like the United States that became the major world power in the twentieth century. Working hard, going to college, and entering the middle class is one way to escape the cycle of poverty or near-poverty, but most will fail. The biggest traditional chance of giving your future children a chance for success is to marry someone wealthy, but more and more, the wealthy are finding their own kind.

Do you and your partner have similar education and socieo-economic backgrounds?

If you’re not married and you are looking for a partner, is this part of your considerations?

Updated February 17, 2014 and originally published February 3, 2014.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Donna Freedman

When I got married I didn’t have a college degree; my then-husband and I were both newspaper reporters but he made more than I did because he’d been a reporter for seven years already. His socioeconomic background was upper-middle class and mine was lower-middle (but striving).
After my divorce I got a college degree in midlife (better late than REALLY late) and am making a living writing for the Internet and magazines. My life partner is a print journalist; his parents were both teachers.
I don’t care how much he earns or doesn’t earn. I fell in love with a man, not a paycheck.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

If the government reads this they will want to legislate who we marry.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

This is not really a big deal for me. Call me idealistic but I still believe in true love. While I know that financial considerations are important. It is more important to consider if you can live with the person and the person can give you what you need. It is more important that your behavior complement each other. But that’s just me.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

“Many of the descendants of early settlers have held onto generational wealth obtained primarily by being the first Europeans to occupy land on this continent.”

Maybe for a tiny handful of families like the Kennedies, but everyone else the inheritance tax destroyed generational wealth a long, long time ago. Most people with wealth today earned it through hard work, sacrifice, and discipline. They were also lucky to have grown up during a time when American jobs weren’t overseas and domestic wages were high due to stricter immigration controls.

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avatar 5 Luke Landes

You’re correct in that most millionaires today have earned money through the work they’ve done… that’s the premise of The Millionaire Next Door, although many of the details in that book have been thoroughly debunked through actual research. Millionaires aren’t what I’m focusing on as wealthy — though a lot of people would sure be happy to have such a net worth. Among the super rich, billionaires, generational wealth (and generational oversized opportunity) is still a strong driver of continued wealth, and of course business investments are also a strong driver (though most have had the advantage of wealthy parents and an environment that was conducive to providing them those investment and business opportunities). The typical “rags to riches” story is an anecdotal experience and not a common experience for today’s wealthy. (Again, I’m not talking about millionaires, who while wealthier than most, are not the category for today’s class of wealth and power in society. There are 5.2 million of them in the United States — not an exclusive club. There are 442 billionaires according to Forbes (and I would assume that there are billionaires Forbes doesn’t know about because they’e not in the traditional businesses that Forbes tracks — and that those are more likely to benefit from generational wealth at a higher rate).

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avatar 6 Anonymous

@Ed Lutz – Really? To which decade are you referring? I’m guessing at some cherry-picked history and frankly, ignorance about immigration and wealth standards in the U.S., based more on nostalgia than on history. So let’s look at our history, shall we?

Colonial America had less income inequality than compared to Europe, but that’s an incredibly low bar, and slaves, indentured servants, and unpaid family members made up most of the labor force, and immigration was hustling along nicely (both voluntary and involuntary, to be euphemistic about slavery). Half of all European immigrants (back to the whole “voluntary” thing) were indentured servants. Half! Ok, so let’s grant that colonial America was a crappy place to live for the average Joe, by our standards.

Industrial Revolution! Yay! Things were great then. Or maybe it was miserable squalor for most – How the Other Half Lives, The Jungle, etc – and decadent wealth for the ruthless few robber barons… immigration at its very highest peak (30 million). On the plus side, hey, most of those immigrants were white northern Europeans… which for some reason doesn’t bother a lot of people as much as those pesky brown immigrants (interesting fact – free blacks weren’t allowed to immigrate to the U.S. until 1860, and Asians in the 1950s! Working and dying here were fine, but not becoming citizens) The Industrial Revolution was one of the periods of highest immigration – when arguably the lower and middle classes lived in the most awful, oppressive, and inhumane conditions faced by non-slaves/non-Indians in the U.S. to date – so we had low immigration controls and really miserable awful living conditions and terrible wages. Ok, so the Industrial Revolution was a crappy time to have to be alive and in the lower/middle class too. Moving on.

The decades leading up to the Civil War? Um, no, let’s not even go there, just… let’s grant that there was a significant wealth leveling post Civil War, what with the whole emancipation, destruction of vast swathes of the country, and carpet bagging thing. Ok.

So let’s go with the beginning decades of the 1900s, Oops, nope, still one of the highest periods of wealth inequality (1860, 1919, and 1929).

Great Depression? Heck no!!! (no explanation needed there, right?)

World War II? Yup, that’s true, the nation pulled itself out of the Great Depression on the back of the war industry and selling people on fancy gadgets and lots of personal debt, and the men who actually came back alive from the war got GI Bill educations amid a roaring economy. That lasted for about 3 decades before the economy did what it had done so many times before.

So basically you are nostalgic for a roughly 30-year span of time, from 1945 – 1975. Really? That doesn’t seem kind of… short-sighted to you? It doesn’t seem strange to be pining for “the past” when the only really decent time to be alive and working in the U.S. was for less than a third of an old person’s lifetime? Really?

James D. Smith, “Modeling the Distribution and Intergenerational Transmission
of Wealth”.
Guillaume Vandenbroucke, “Trends in Hours: The U.S. from 1900 to 1950”.
Deanna Barker, “Indentured Servitude in Colonial America”. Frontier Resources.
Jeffrey Schultz, “Encyclopedia of Minorities in American Politics: African Americans and Asian Americans”.
Nicholas J. Evans,”Indirect passage from Europe: Transmigration via the UK, 1836–1914″.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

I think you’re missing a big point. Technology has made it easier to keep in touch as you pointed out, but it has also made it much easier to find suitable (i.e., similar) mates. Instead of ferreting out info and similarities in a bar or place of worship, you can search on multiple criteria on dating sites, being as specific or general as one desires. It essentially removed happenstance (the combination of same place and same time) from the equation. So dating websites can connect people who are highly compatible/similar yet who may not share a common enough circle that they would have ever met in real life situations. I hate to use this analogy, but it’s like Ebay. Before Ebay, you could literally spend a lifetime going to garage sales and shops looking for something unusual/rare and still not find it. Today, you can search on Ebay and almost surely find it right away.

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avatar 8 Donna Freedman

Re college: Back in the day there was that groaner about women attending university to get their “MRS” degrees. Ugh. But some people still believe in this:

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avatar 9 Anonymous

For me, it’s not so much a matter of income parity, it’s intelligence (which many people mix up with education, incorrectly in my opinion). I am a professional woman, with a boyfriend who is also a professional. I make almost twice as much as he does. Granted we have not moved in together or combined finances at this stage, but as far as choosing and compatibility (the focus of this article), the dollar figure was irrelevant. Ignoring his other good features (just for the sake of this discussion) and focusing only on intelligence: he is smart, creative, has a flexible brain, and is always interested in learning new things in an astonishing range of topics. Those are the things that make us compatible – he doesn’t get intimidated by my vocabulary or quick brain, in fact if anything it’s the opposite; we can learn from each other; we can jump from silly to philosophical to intellectual and back without much transition, and both of us enjoy the range. (I know, we’re special little ponies) My point though is this – who cares about dollars, if you can talk and laugh and enjoy each other?

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avatar 10 qixx

I ended up marring someone in a similar socio-economic situation as my own. This is more likely due to the fact that i hung out with people of a similar situation to my own. I’d like to think these issues were not a factor. As we were on the same page i can’t state it would not have been a factor if the situations were different.

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