Low-Income Couples More Likely To Divorce, But Why?

We've heard before that college-educated people are more likely to stay married. But what about the flipside: the higher risk of divorce for less-educated, lower-income people, and its potential impact, financial and otherwise, on their lives?

In her analysis of whether the oft-quoted stat that 50% of marriages end in divorce is really accurate (answer: maybe), Time's Belinda Luscombe writes, "What seems most clear is that less-educated, lower-income couples split up more often than college grads and may be doing so in higher numbers than before." She also quotes sociologist Paul Amato, who says, "The people who are most likely to get divorced have the least resources to deal with its impact, particularly on children." A recent and widely-cited report by economists Betsey Stevenson and Adam Isen found that college-educated white women were the most likely group of all women to be married at age 40, not because they are more likely to marry, but because they're less likely to divorce. Many opinionators, including us, touted this as evidence that education doesn't, in fact, ruin women for marriage, which is still a worthwhile point. But it may not be very comforting to those without the means for college education — or the economic gains that often come from it.

Of course, college education doesn't always mean higher income, but a number of sources link higher risk of divorce to low socioeconomic status as well. And while conservatives sometimes try to address this issue with incentives to stay married, there hasn't been much mainstream attention paid to potential causes. Are poorer couples more likely to divorce because money problems put pressure on their relationships? Because they don't have access to the kind of marriage counseling available to richer couples? There's another possibility, too — Stevenson and Isen found that college-educated women are less likely to believe "financial security is the main benefit of marriage." So are less-educated, potentially lower-income women entering marriage more out of financial necessity than actual compatibility, then facing the cruel irony that they're more likely to divorce, leading to more financial insecurity?

Since divorce can severely impact a woman's financial well-being, as well as costing both parties a lot of money in legal fees, it's especially problematic for couples who don't have a lot of money to start out with. And for women who may have taken time out of the workforce to raise children, a lack of education can make it even harder to get back in. All of which underscores Amato's point: we really should be talking about the disproportionate prevalence of divorce among the people for whom it can be most catastrophic. But the way we talk about it matters. We shouldn't uncritically advocate that lower-income couples at risk for divorce stay married for financial security, as though seeking emotional fulfillment in marriage, and ending a marriage that doesn't provide that, were a luxury for the upper classes. Instead, we should examine how to mitigate the economic factors that may pull marriages apart in the first place — and the inequalities that make it so hard for poor people in this country to live, and especially to parent, on their own. Marriages based on companionship seem to do better than those based on necessity, and so, paradoxically, reducing people's need to get married may actually help them stay married later on.

Image via karen roach/Shutterstock.com.

Are Marriage Statistics Divorced From Reality? [Time]