Marriage, these days, is getting bad press. For example, a string of recent headlines claim that living together is healthier than marriage, citing a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
Though provocative, headlines can be misleading, focusing only on a non-representative subset of findings. A more nuanced analysis of the above study, for example, points to a different conclusion. Indeed, on balance, the study’s overall findings suggest that compared to cohabitation, marriage is associated with better psychological and physical well-being.
The news coverage completely neglects two other studies on the effects of marriage that appear in the same issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family. Perhaps it’s less “newsworthy” when these studies’ main findings merely confirm decades of social science research on the relationships between marriage and economic well-being and crime deterrence.
Conducted by researchers from the U.S. Social Security Administration, one of the two studies compares retirement savings among married, single, and cohabiting young women and men. It finds that, relative to young single or cohabiting women, young married women are more likely to see retirement as an important savings goal. Moreover, among both men and women, married individuals are more likely to own individual retirement accounts (IRAs) compared to their single or cohabiting peers and more likely to participate in a defined-contribution pension plan (e.g., 401(k), 403(b), 457, or thrift savings plans) compared to single individuals. For example, compared to married peers, single young women have 58 percent lower odds of owning IRAs, and for cohabitating young women the odds are 32 percent lower.
According to the study’s authors, the findings “imply that, all else equal, unmarried young adults generally tend to fall behind their married counterparts in participation in a variety of retirement savings plans early in the life course.” The findings suggest “a modestly stronger positive relationship between marriage and retirement-specific savings outcomes for young adult women than for men.”
The second study assesses the well-documented link between marriage and desistance from crime by controlling for the “selection bias” (i.e., those who marry also tend to be more law-abiding) using a sophisticated method that accounts for genetic influences. Taking these factors into consideration, marriage still increases the odds of desistance by 37 percent.
Contributing to the mounting evidence that marriage matters, these two studies—though passed over for the more sensational headlines on the pseudo-advantages of cohabitation—suggest that the benefits associated with marriage accrue not only to individuals but to society as well. Policymakers concerned about the financial stability and security of Americans would do well to take note.