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Will Marriage Equality Reinforce Income Inequality?

by JohnGallagher June 26, 2016

gayweddingcakeToday is the one-year anniversary of the momentous Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage equality nationally. Since then, Gallup estimates that more than 120,000 same-sex couples have tied the knot, or nearly half of the same-sex couples living together in the U.S.

Many of those marriages happened in the first heady rush (and bottled up demand) after the Court ruling, with the numbers leveling off to a more steady level. Marriage is now supported by a solid majority of Americans, and the end of civilization as predicted by opponents has yet to happen. (That’s pending a Trump presidency, but that’s another story.)

But does even something as overwhelmingly groundbreaking as marriage equality carry unintended consequences? The one that may be the most worrisome is one that is plaguing marriage in general: income inequality.

As an institution, marriage has been changing over the past several decades. In the 1950s, pretty much everyone got married at the same rate, regardless of education level. But that has changed. More recently, walking down the aisle is something that educated and white people are more likely to do than people with less education. That divide also applies to some racial and ethnic minorities, who are unfortunately less likely to be four-year college graduates.

The divergence in marriage patterns isn’t just an academic issue. It has an effect on income inequality. Straight people are now much more likely to marry people of similar earning power than they were several decades ago. Straight married couples are more likely to have higher incomes and more assets (like a home) than couples who just live together. At the same time, working class and poor people are finding their lives filled with uncertainty, particularly financially. The instability of lower-wage jobs has made marriage increasingly the purview of the middle-class.  Marriage assumes that your life is relatively settled. If you are stuck in an Uber-economy with uncertain wages and no benefits, marriage may well be the last thing on your mind.

Which is just what the LGBT community doesn’t need: another fault line of race and class along which to fracture.

Now marriage is not a cudgel used to beat the unmarried. That’s the way the religious right works. People have the right to live the lives that they want. But the fact remains that our society is structured in such a way that marriage offers real benefits. If those benefits aren’t available to everyone, then there’s something wrong.

Maybe same-sex married couples will prove to be the exception to the growing tie between marriage and money. They may well be more likely to form mixed income families, just as they are more likely to form mixed racial relationships than their hetero counterparts. After just one year, there’s not enough data to tell. But if marriage equality means that white couples in white collar jobs are the ones likeliest to get married and to enjoy the financial benefits of marriage, then in retrospect the victory of a year ago may be just the beginning of our hard work, not the end.




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