Economy & Business

The Married Weather the COVID Financial Storm Better Than Singles

Newlyweds kiss through protective face masks at a wedding ceremony with only witnesses and no guests as public gatherings are banned to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Naples, Italy, March 20, 2020. (Ciro De Luca/Reuters)
Two is greater than one.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacted a devastating toll on men, women, and children across the United States. But some Americans are weathering the COVID-19 financial storm better than others. Our research suggests that married men and women have proven to be much more resilient in the face of this storm than their single peers.

On the social and emotional front, we have already highlighted evidence that marriage is buffering many Americans from feelings of loneliness amid stay-at-home orders. We found, for instance, that singles were nearly twice as likely as married adults to say they felt lonely every day or nearly every day during the previous week.

But marriage offers couples more than social and emotional security. It is also a critical source of financial stability during good times and bad times. Marriage puts families at a financial advantage by providing them with two potential sources of income. Moreover, research shows that marriage reduces the odds that a household will go through costly family transitions, encourages greater support from family networks, and builds habits of financial prudence, all of which shore up additional security against financial hardship when the tides of fortune turn.

The economic value of marriage has only grown since COVID-19 hit. A new survey spearheaded by the Data Foundation and NORC at the University of Chicago shows how married adults are weathering the pandemic’s economic challenges better than singles. In analyzing the second wave of data from the COVID Impact Survey, we find that married men, women, and families are less likely to experience hunger, to be less dependent on public assistance, and to be better prepared to cover unexpected expenses during this pandemic, when compared with single adults and families headed by single parents.

Married adults appear to have experienced fewer job losses than unmarried adults since the World Health Organization declared the COVID outbreak a pandemic just over two months ago. Single parents are almost twice as likely to say they became unemployed after March 1 of this year or that they have been temporarily laid off or furloughed when compared with married adults without kids.

One of the greatest areas of concern during these challenging times is hunger. Proper nutrition is essential for childhood development and adult health. We find that single parents are more than twice as likely as married parents to say that their household ran out of food before they had enough money to buy more during the previous month. Nearly half (49 percent) of single parents said this happened in the previous 30 days, while 21 percent of married parents said the same. Even for adults without children, married couples fared better than singles on food-insecurity measures.

Unsurprisingly, marrieds have been less likely to turn to the government for public assistance during the pandemic. Take food stamps. Single parents were more than twice as likely as married adults to say they received or applied for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the past week (figure 3).

Married men and women, and their families, are also much more likely to have a financial buffer built up. The COVID Impact Survey asked people about their ability to cover unexpected expenses based on their current financial situation: “Suppose that you have an unexpected expense that costs $400. Based on your current financial situation, how would you pay for this expense? If you would use more than one method to cover this expense, please select all that apply.”

Respondents were given eight options to select from, including “use money currently in my checking or savings account or with cash,” “put it on my credit card and pay it off over time,” “use money from a bank loan or line of credit,” and more.

Given all of these options, about a quarter of single parents still said, “I would not be able to pay for it right now,” compared with only 13 percent of married parents. Many singles, then, seem to be struggling with not only a thin savings account but also a limited ability to borrow, which could compound their hardship in this time.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit everyone hard, but it appears that married Americans — both those with and without children — are weathering turbulent economic conditions more successfully than their single peers. In particular, we find that single-parent families are almost twice as likely to be suffering from food insecurity, relying on food stamps, and unable to cover emergency expenses, compared with families headed by married parents.

What’s more, even when we control for factors, such as race and education, that might seem to better explain why some Americans are more financially resilient than others, we still find that marriage is a significant predictor of who is getting by during the pandemic. In the midst of increasingly difficult and uncertain times, marriage is helping Americans steer clear of hunger, government assistance, and financial destitution.

The financial advantages of marriage are especially striking because cultural and political elites in the U.S. are so reluctant to discuss them in public. Those who control the commanding heights of popular culture, the media, and both political parties typically shy away from acknowledging a simple truth: When it comes to money, two is greater than one. But in the rest of America, where the devastation of this pandemic is real and present, this truth could not be clearer.

Peyton Roth is a research assistant in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute. W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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