This study examines the association between marriage and economic wealth of women and men. Going beyond previous research that focused on household wealth, I examine personal wealth, which allows identifying gender disparities in the association between marriage and wealth. Using unique data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (2002, 2007, and 2012), I apply random-effects and fixed-effects regression models to test my expectations. I find that both women and men experience substantial marriage wealth premiums not only in household wealth but also in personal wealth. However, I do not find consistent evidence for gender disparities in these general marriage premiums. Additional analyses indicate, however, that women’s marriage premiums are substantially lower than men’s premiums in older cohorts and when only nonhousing wealth is considered. Overall, this study provides new evidence that women and men gain unequally in their wealth attainment through marriage.
Marriage has been linked to a wide range of beneficial outcomes, such as enhanced economic attainment (Waite 1995). Continuously married, heterosexual individuals are consistently found to have more household wealth compared with the never married or individuals with disrupted marital histories (Painter et al. 2015; Wilmoth and Koso 2002; Zagorsky 2005). A recent study estimated the unadjusted marriage premium in household wealth for men in their first marriage compared with never-married men to be approximately 220 % in the United States (Ruel and Hauser 2013). Marriage premiums are also found in other diverse contexts, such as Germany (Sierminska et al. 2010)—the country case for the current study—and Mexico (Torche and Spilerman 2009). Examining this wealth premium, in addition to the well-researched marriage wage premium (Cheng 2016; Killewald and Gough 2013; Light 2004), is relevant because wealth is only moderately correlated with wages, is more unequally distributed than wages, and provides distinct advantages, such as enhanced consumption potential and real and psychological safety nets (Keister and Moller 2000; Pfeffer 2011; Spilerman 2000).
I identify two major shortcomings in previous literature on the marriage wealth premium. First, the exclusive focus on household-level wealth in prior research ignores that individuals’ financial well-being may not be accurately captured by household-level measures alone—a type of ecological fallacy (Bennett 2013; Deere and Doss 2006; Ulker 2009). Previous research has called for a gender-sensitive within-household perspective on the marriage premium in personal wealth (Denton and Boos 2007; Ruel and Hauser 2013; Vespa and Painter 2011), but no research has addressed this issue yet, mainly because of a lack of personal wealth data (Schmidt and Sevak 2006). Any conclusions about gender disparities in the marriage premium in previous research are, therefore, severely limited. Whether marriage induces similar wealth benefits for both spouses remains unclear (Deere and Doss 2006; Ulker 2009). Second, economically more resourceful individuals select into marriage (Schneider 2011; Xie et al. 2003), and those prone to accumulate wealth may be more likely to marry because of unobserved characteristics (Lupton and Smith 2003). This selectivity may have led to an overestimation of the marriage wealth premium in previous research, which is exclusively based on between-individual comparisons (Hao 1996; Painter et al. 2015; Wilmoth and Koso 2002). Until now, there has been little convincing evidence that entering marriage is indeed associated with a change toward more wealth within individuals over time, instead of wealthy people being more likely to marry and to stay married.
Focusing on individuals rather than households, I examine the association between marriage and wealth using unique longitudinal data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP; 2002, 2007, and 2012). In contrast to most other surveys, the SOEP innovatively records personal wealth of all adult household members, defined as all assets that individuals (solely and jointly) own, less their debts. The sum of all household members’ personal wealth equals the conventional measure of household wealth used in previous literature. Using these data and tracking individuals over time enables me to make two main contributions to the literature. First, I assess the marriage wealth premium using both measures of personal wealth and of household wealth to gain a more holistic picture of the individual-level and gender-specific consequences of marriage for economic attainment. Second, to reduce potential selection bias, I assess the immediate marriage wealth premium by examining within-individual changes in wealth associated with changes in marital status using longitudinal fixed-effects regression models. Using personal wealth instead of household wealth facilitates such within-individual analyses (Lupton and Smith 2003). Because the marriage premium may materialize only in the long run and because I wish to replicate previous studies, I complement the within-individual fixed-effects regression models with between-individual regression models using retrospective marital histories for a subsample of older respondents.
Prior Empirical Research
Previous studies have found an association between marital status and wealth at the household level in between-individual comparisons. Continuously married spouses in their first marriages have more net wealth than the (cohabiting and noncohabiting) never-married, divorced, and widowed during midlife and at older ages (Addo and Lichter 2013; Halpern-Manners et al. 2015; Holden and Kuo 1996; Keister 2003; Land and Russell 1996; Lupton and Smith 2003; Painter et al. 2015; Painter and Vespa 2012; Sierminska et al. 2010; Torche and Spilerman 2009; Wilmoth and Koso 2002).1 The association holds across the wealth distribution but seems to be larger at the top of the distribution (Addo and Lichter 2013; Lupton and Smith 2003; Schmidt and Sevak 2006). When considering distinct wealth components, Addo and Lichter (2013) found the marriage premium to be mostly concentrated in housing wealth. The marriage premium is smaller for nonhousing wealth.
The evidence for the marriage wealth premium is exclusively based on between-individual research designs, which are vulnerable to selection into marriage. Previous studies often drew on data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS; e.g., Addo and Lichter 2013), which includes only older respondents, or focused on subsamples of older respondents in other surveys (e.g., Halpern-Manners et al. 2015). Thus, examining within-individual changes in wealth related to entries into marriage, which mostly occur early in life, was not feasible in these studies. Studies that used younger samples of respondents (e.g., Painter et al. 2015) focused on between-individual differences in wealth growth curves rather than on within-individual changes after the transition into marriage.
Scholars have attempted to disaggregate the household-level wealth premium to the personal level to examine gender disparities. For instance, Wilmoth and Koso (2002) made the strong assumption of equal sharing of wealth in the household by assigning one-half of the household wealth to each partner, finding a larger marriage premium for women than for men compared with the never married. Schmidt and Sevak (2006) and Yamokoski and Keister (2006) found larger household-level marriage wealth premiums for women than for men compared with the never married, ignoring the within-household distribution of wealth. Ruel and Hauser (2013) found married women who are their households’ best financial survey respondents to have less household wealth than their male counterparts, but the marriage premium compared with the never married seems slightly larger for women than for men. The study conflated selectivity in being a household’s best respondent and gender, and ignored the within-household distribution of wealth. Finally, a few studies have examined pension wealth, the only wealth component for which data are often available at the individual level. These studies mostly found marriage penalties in pension wealth for women (e.g. Fasang et al. 2013). These attempts provide only an incomplete picture of the consequences of marriage for both spouses’ wealth.
Recently, studies have begun to examine gender inequalities in personal wealth in Germany using the SOEP, which is also analyzed in the current study. At the descriptive level, Sierminska et al. (2010) found an unadjusted marriage premium in personal wealth of 385 % for married compared with never-married men (346 % for women). At the same time, married women have approximately EUR 47,000 less personal wealth compared with married men (Sierminska et al. 2010). Within German couples, Grabka et al. (2015) found married women to have less wealth than their spouses. Similar gender disparities in personal wealth in married couples have also been found in France (Fremeaux and Leturcq 2013) and for couples in the United Kingdom (Kan and Laurie 2014). From these studies, it remains unclear how the transition into marriage has potentially contributed to changes in personal wealth and thus how marriage may have contributed to gender disparities in personal wealth. For instance, it is unclear whether married men are wealthier simply because they are likely to enter marriage with more wealth than women (Sierminska et al. 2010).
Explanations for a Household-Level Marriage Wealth Premium
Previous literature has repeatedly found a (temporary) marriage wage premium for both genders (Cheng 2016; Killewald and Gough 2013; Light 2004). The wage premium may increase savings and thereby may explain the marriage wealth premium (Hao 1996; Wilmoth and Koso 2002), but wealth is not a direct function of wages and thus needs separate analyses. The prevailing explanation for wage premiums builds on economic models of marriage in which it is argued that the legal protection of the marriage contract may facilitate specialization and increase productivity (Becker 1981). Evidence for marriage wage premiums for both genders is inconsistent with such a specialization explanation, however, and alternative explanations—such as a higher motivation among the married to earn a higher pay—await further empirical investigation (Killewald and Gough 2013).
Independently from wage premiums, after-tax and after-transfer incomes may also be higher for the married because they are often treated favorably in tax and welfare policies compared with the nonmarried (Addo and Lichter 2013). For example, in Germany, married couples have a tax advantage compared with cohabiting couples and singles, which increases after-tax incomes, especially if spouses earn unequal incomes (Apps and Rees 2005). Married and cohabiting couples also enjoy economies of scale compared with singles, which allows couples to save more of their income at the same household income level compared with singles (Hao 1996). When married couples pool at least part of their economic resources, more efficient investments during marriage may be possible (Lauer and Yodanis 2011).
Marriage may also be associated with investment behavior through psychological and social channels, thereby increasing wealth. The legal security of marriage and the “normative expectations of permanence” (Vespa and Painter 2011:958) may facilitate saving among spouses (Knoll et al. 2012).2 The normative and legal obligations toward the spouse and potential children may also increase savings and particular investments, such as life insurance (Hao 1996). The normative and legal obligations as well as the expectation of relationship stability associated with marriage are the main reasons why the married are expected to accumulate more wealth than cohabitants (Painter and Vespa 2012).3 In addition, marriage is culturally linked to investments in homeownership in many societies as an aspect of “nest building.” The long-term perspective and legal security of marriage make investments in homeownership more likely, and homeownership has been found to be associated with more net wealth compared with remaining in the rental tenure (Dew and Eggebeen 2010; Painter and Vespa 2012).
The association between marriage and wealth found in previous research may not be causal, however. Previous studies have indicated that wealthier and economically resourceful individuals select into stable marriage and that marital sorting is associated with parental wealth (Charles et al. 2013; Lersch and Vidal 2014; Schneider 2011; Xie et al. 2003). This selection and sorting may have led to an overestimation of the marriage wealth premium in previous research (Hao 1996; Wilmoth and Koso 2002). In addition, selection may also take place through unobservable characteristics that are related to marriage and wealth. Lupton and Smith (2003:148) proposed that “prudent” individuals may be more likely to marry and save. Previous research has acknowledged these sources of selectivity (e.g., Painter et al. 2015; Wilmoth and Koso 2002), but little has been done to disentangle selection from causation.
Personal Wealth as a Complementary Measure of Financial Well-being
A further shortcoming of previous literature is the exclusive focus on household-level wealth. Analyzing household-level wealth as an accurate measure of individual financial well-being in couple households is valid only under the strong assumption of pooling and equal sharing within the household (Denton and Boos 2007). Pooling refers to a joint pot of resources, and sharing refers to equal access to this pot (Vogler and Pahl 1994).
Little research has directly studied the assumption of pooling and sharing for wealth, but the assumption has been widely studied with regard to income and has been mostly rejected (for an overview, see Bennett 2013). This literature shows that while the majority of married couples use an apparently joint pot of income, inequality persists in regard to access to this pot. Women often have less access to resources than men do, particularly if men manage the pool or contribute more to the household income (Kenney 2006; Vogler and Pahl 1994). Thus, individual contributions remain relevant for access to household resources. For instance, in a frequently cited study, Lundberg et al. (1997) showed that a policy change allocating child allowance directly to mothers rather than to fathers substantially affected expenditure patterns of families to the advantage of mothers and their children in the United Kingdom. In addition, pooling of incomes in a joint pot during marriage has become less common in recent years (Vogler et al. 2006).
Similar to income, which is mostly individually earned before entering the household, spouses can legally retain and control individual assets (next to joint assets) during marriage in systems with separation of property, which is the legal default in Germany and most states in the United States (Deere and Doss 2006; Dutta 2012). Empirical evidence from Germany shows that within the same couple, women have less personal wealth during marriage than their spouses, on average (Grabka et al. 2015). Without formally sharing property rights, spouses may still informally share their wealth in a joint pot and participate in and benefit from their spouses’ assets. Based on the literature on intrahousehold inequality in incomes, however, it seems unlikely that spouses completely share their personal wealth. In addition, qualitative studies have indicated that in a considerable share of couples, at least some assets—such as savings accounts—are not shared (Burgoyne et al. 2006, 2007). Even if spouses would fully share, relying on the other spouse to share personal wealth informally may create potentially undesired economic dependencies within the relationship, similar to the situation of spouses with no own income (Burgoyne et al. 2007; Sierminska et al. 2010).
Accounting for the sharing of personal wealth in case marriages end at divorce or when a spouse dies—which is legally enforced in Germany, as in many other countries (Dutta 2012)—personal wealth remains relevant. For instance, from a bargaining perspective, if noncooperation rather than divorce is the threat point during marriage, sharing of wealth at divorce is irrelevant for the well-being during marriage (Sierminska et al. 2010). In anticipation of a divorce (or death), spouses may also consume wealth and thereby avoid later sharing (Wilmoth and Koso 2002; Zagorsky 2005). In addition, only wealth accumulated during marriage must be shared; some wealth, such as inherited assets, is excluded from legal sharing in Germany (Dutta 2012). Furthermore, enforced sharing of wealth may be avoided through prenuptial agreements.
Intrahousehold inequality in personal wealth during marriage may have negative consequences for the less-wealthy spouses beyond reducing their consumption potential and financial security. For instance, evidence suggests that the risk of intimate partner violence is lower for women with more personal wealth (Oduro et al. 2015), hinting at the importance of personal wealth as a power resource. More generally, wealth is positively associated with health (Semyonov et al. 2013), and less-wealthy spouses may have worse health. Additionally, children’s well-being may be negatively affected if mothers have less personal wealth, similar to findings regarding intrahousehold income inequality (Lundberg et al. 1997). Personal wealth inequalities during marriage may also lead to postmarriage inequalities. For instance, less personal wealth of married women may contribute to the observed lower wealth among divorced women (Wilmoth and Koso 2002), if men can at least partly avoid sharing upon divorce. Thus, personal wealth is an important complementary measure of individual financial well-being next to household wealth. Methodologically, personal wealth is also relevant to examine because it is not confounded with household composition and can be more easily tracked over time when household composition changes (Lupton and Smith 2003).
Gender Disparities in the Personal-Level Marriage Wealth Premium
There are several reasons to anticipate an unequal marriage wealth premium for women and men after the assumption of equal sharing within households is relaxed, and personal wealth is considered. First, marriage wage premiums are larger for men than for women (Cheng 2016; Killewald and Gough 2013; Light 2004). In addition, marriage is often associated with having children, which leads to wage losses for women (Waldfogel 1997). If men have higher wages within marriage, these gains may not be equally shared within the household (Burgoyne 1990), leading to unequal personal wealth accumulation. The unequal wealth accumulation must not be a direct function of wage inequality, however, because men may compensate their spouses through within-household transfers of incomes (Brines 1994). Second, women are more likely to exchange support with their own parents than men do (Silverstein and Bengtson 1997), which may reduce women’s wealth if they give money.4 Third, if children are present within marriage, increased expenditures for children may be first the responsibility of mothers (Lundberg et al. 1997), which reduces mothers’ saving compared with their spouses. Fourth, because labor market participation rates are higher among married men than women, men may be more likely to receive additional work-related wealth benefits: for example, occupational pension plans (Chang 2010). These (often personalized) benefits may be less likely shared than other types of assets. Fifth, men are, on average, older at entry into marriage than their spouses. Because of their age, men may have accumulated more wealth prior to their marriages (Sierminska et al. 2010), and the higher wealth at entry may lead to increased accumulation rates within marriage (e.g., because of compounded interest).
The last point implies that men initially contribute more personal wealth to the household than women do at marriage formation. It follows that at the aggregated household level, women may experience larger marriage premiums than men because women can benefit from the higher personal wealth that men bring into the household. This would explain the higher household-level marriage wealth premiums for women compared with men found in previous literature (e.g., Wilmoth and Koso 2002).
In sum, marriage premiums at the household and personal level are likely for women and men because of more disposable income that can be saved and because of changes in investment behavior following from the long-term perspective and legal security of marriage. At the personal level, the aforementioned arguments point toward larger marriage premiums in personal wealth for men compared with women, mainly due to unequal incomes, different spending, and unequal access to work-related benefits. At the household level, women may experience a larger household-level marriage wealth premium compared with men because women benefit from higher personal wealth of their spouses. Therefore, I hypothesize the following regarding the complementary outcomes of personal and household wealth (also see Fig. 1).
Hypothesis 1 (H1): Married women have more personal wealth than never-married women.
Hypothesis 2 (H2): Married men have more personal wealth than never-married men.
Hypothesis 3 (H3): The marriage premium in personal wealth is larger for men than for women.
Hypothesis 4 (H4): Married women have more household than never-married women.
Hypothesis 5 (H5): Married men have more household wealth than never-married men.
Hypothesis 6 (H6): The marriage premium in household wealth is larger for women than for men.
Data and Analytical Strategy
To test these hypotheses, I use longitudinal data from the SOEP (version 30), which is a large, nationally representative, multipurpose household panel survey for Germany that commenced in 1984 (Wagner et al. 2007; http://www.diw.de/en/soep). All adult household members are interviewed. Personal wealth is recorded in 2002, 2007, and 2012. Although having only three measurement points reduces the power of my longitudinal analyses, the SOEP is internationally unique in offering comprehensive personal wealth measures. The wealth measures are multiply imputed with five sets of values by the SOEP survey team (Grabka and Westermeier 2015). There are few missing responses on other analytical variables, which I impute with multivariate multiple imputation using Stata’s mi procedure (version 14.1) under the assumption of missing at random. Estimation results from each imputed set of data are combined using Rubin’s rule (Rubin 1987).
The analytical sample is restricted to household heads and their heterosexual partners in couple households and household heads in single households aged 18 and older who do not live with their parents in a common household.5 I divide the sample into two subsamples. First, the prospective subsample includes all respondents aged 18–60 who were observed at least twice in 2002, 2007, or 2012. This subsample is used to examine the immediate marriage premium with fixed-effects regression (see the Analytical Strategy section). The upper age limit for this subsample is chosen for the very few respondents who enter into marriage at later ages. My main conclusions are robust to alternative age ranges if not otherwise stated (see Fig. S1 in Online Resource 1). This subsample includes 6,080 women with 15,014 individual-year observations and 5,113 men with 12,537 individual-year observations. I observe entries into first marriages for 436 women and 395 men. Second, the retrospective subsample includes all respondents aged 51–75 (in line with previous research based on the HRS; Addo and Lichter 2013; Wilmoth and Koso 2002) who are observed at least once in 2002, 2007, or 2012. This is the subsample for the between-individual analyses of the long-term marriage premium. This subsample includes 7,309 women with 12,446 individual-year observations and 7,030 men with 11,907 individual-year observations.
Measurement of Wealth
In the SOEP, all wealth is measured “bottom-up.” Wealth is measured at the individual level and is aggregated by the survey team to the household level. I examine personal wealth and two measures of household wealth (see Table 1 for summary statistics of all analytical variables). Personal net wealth is the sum of all wealth personally belonging to an individual respondent including real and financial assets, life insurance, private pension plans, business assets, and valuable assets (such as jewelry). From these assets, personal debts and loans are subtracted; thus, respondents may have negative net wealth. The value of each asset and liability is separately recorded in the SOEP in three steps: (1) a filter question is asked whether respondents hold this type of asset or liability; (2) the market value is recorded; and (3) the respondents are asked about the share of the asset or liability that they own. The exact share of ownership is recorded, but most partnered individuals reported a 50/50 split if an asset or liability was jointly owned (see Online Resource 1, Section S1 for more details on the measurements of personal wealth in the SOEP). Thus, personal net wealth includes assets that are solely owned by an individual as well as the individually owned share of joint assets. Personal net wealth is consumer price index–adjusted. I top- and bottom-code the extreme 0.1 % of reported wealth values. Additionally, I apply an inverse hyperbolic sine (IHS) transformation to adjust the right-skewed wealth distribution, which includes negative and 0 values.6 The IHS transformation closely approximates the natural log transformation for sufficiently large wealth values (Pence 2006). Household net wealth is the sum of all personal wealth in the household. This measure has conventionally been used in studies of the marriage wealth premium (e.g., Ruel and Hauser 2013). Per capita net wealth adjusts the household wealth for the household size by dividing the household wealth by the number of household members aged 18 and above, and is figured similarly at the couple level (Wilmoth and Koso 2002).
I measure current marital status at the time of interview with a categorical indicator amended with information from retrospective marital histories collected in the SOEP: never married (reference), married, divorced, widowed, and remarried. Married refers to the first marriage of respondents and is the main category of interest, which is used to test the hypotheses. I also report results for an alternative marriage premium comparing the estimated effect of first marriage with cohabitation.
I include the following time-variant control variables: age (as a linear term in the prospective analysis and with an additional quadratic term in the retrospective analysis) to capture maturation effects; cohabiting (1 = yes, 0 = no) to account for nonmarital partners in the household; pregnant (1 = yes, 0 = no) to capture the nine months before an observed birth (for women and men; variable omitted for retrospective sample); newborn child (1 = yes, 0 = no) to capture the first 12 months after an observed birth (variable omitted for retrospective sample); and number of children as a linear and quadratic term. I also include the following time-invariant control variables: highest education attained (low = no formal education or Levels 1 and 2 in the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED); intermediate = ISCED Levels 3 and 4 (reference), and high = ISCED Levels 5 and 6); number of siblings; lived in East Germany in 1989 (1 = yes, 0 = no); immigration status (1 = yes, 0 = no) indicates whether respondents or their parents have immigrated to Germany; birth cohort (born before 1936, 1936–1945 (reference), 1946–1955, and 1956–1961);7highest education of both parents when respondents were aged 15 (low = no formal education or ISCED Levels 1 and 2; intermediate = ISCED Levels 3 and 4 (reference), and high = ISCED Levels 5 and 6); and I additionally control for the extension subsamples that have been added to the SOEP over time with a set of dummy variables (Wagner et al. 2007).8
where yit is (personal, per capita, or household) net wealth of person i in year t, which is transformed using an IHS function. α is the intercept. Μit contains dummy indicators of the marital status, and γ are the related coefficients of main interest to test the hypotheses. Xit contains time-variant control variables, Zi contains time-invariant control variables, and β and δ are the related sets of coefficients. νi captures individual-specific, time-invariant unobservables. εit is random disturbance across i and t. To examine the long-term marriage premium in the retrospective subsample, I use random-effects generalized least square (GLS) regression to estimate Model 1 under the assumption that νi and εit are not correlated with the right-side variables in the model. I correct standard errors for clustering of observations within individuals. Such an estimation strategy, which is based on a between-individual research design, has been exclusively used in previous research on the marriage premium (e.g., Wilmoth and Koso 2002) but is vulnerable to selection bias.
where , , and are the time-variant deviations from the individual-specific means , , and , respectively. Time-invariant unobservable characteristics are differenced out along with time-invariant variables. Thereby, Model 2 relaxes the strong assumption of uncorrelated disturbance inherent in Model 1 to the degree that εit is not correlated with the right-side variables. This eliminates selection bias due to time-invariant unobservable characteristics. This model is a substantial improvement over previous studies in the field, even though estimates potentially suffer from bias due to time-variant effects of unobservable characteristics. Again, standard errors are corrected for clustering within individuals.
The analysis proceeds in four stages, and all results are presented separately by gender and for personal, per capita, and household net wealth. First, I present descriptive evidence based on unadjusted mean differences. Second, I present results from Model 1 for the long-run premium in the retrospective sample to initially test my hypotheses. Third, I present results from Model 2 for the immediate marriage premium in the prospective sample to additionally test my hypotheses and provide more robust evidence from within-individual comparisons. Note that these two sets of results are not based on the same individuals. Potential differences in results may reflect, for instance, cohort differences. I return to this issue in the fourth stage of the analysis, where I also discuss additional analyses of the marriage premium when considering only nonhousing wealth (i.e., net wealth less equity in owner-occupied housing).
Table 2 shows preliminary evidence on the relationship between marriage and wealth. Compared with the never married, married women and men aged 18–60 (prospective sample for the immediate marriage premium) have significantly more personal net wealth, per capita net wealth, and household net wealth. Compared with the divorced and remarried, married women and men aged 18–60 are also significantly wealthier according to all three measures. Widowed women and men do not differ significantly in their wealth from the married in this age group. Married women aged 18–60 have significantly less personal net wealth (8.120; mean of EUR 80,888 in the untransformed, original scale) than married men (8.815; mean of EUR 119,123 in the original scale). I do not find any other gender differences in the mean personal net wealth, per capita wealth, or household wealth among women and men aged 18–60.
I also find a positive association between marriage and wealth among women and men aged 51–75 (retrospective sample for the long-term marriage premium). However, I find a number of noteworthy differences to the results for women and men aged 18–60. First, married women aged 51–75 do not differ significantly in their personal net wealth (9.407; mean of EUR 114,536 in the original scale) compared with never-married women (9.423; mean of EUR 140,074 in the original scale). They also do not differ significantly in their per capita net wealth. Second, widowed women aged 51–75 have significantly less per capita net wealth and household net wealth compared with married women. Third, next to the gender difference in married women’s and men’s personal net wealth, I also find significant gender differences in all three measures of wealth among never-married women and men, and in personal net wealth among remarried women and men aged 51–75. In the first group, women have significantly more wealth. In the latter group, men have significantly more wealth.
Retrospective Analyses of the Long-term Wealth Premium
Next, I formally test for a marriage wealth premium in later life (at ages 51–75) using a between-individual research design and random-effects regression (Table 3). As expected in H1 (for women) and H2 (for men), I find a positive association of being in a first marriage compared with having never married with personal net wealth for women and men. Women in their first marriage have approximately 182 % (= 100 × [exp(1.035) – 1]) more IHS-transformed personal net wealth than never-married women. Married men have approximately 759 % (= 100 × [exp(2.151) – 1]) more personal net wealth compared with never-married men. This gender difference to the advantage of men is substantially large and statistically significant at the 95 % confidence level, in accordance with H3.9,10 Compared with the married, divorced and remarried women and men have significantly less personal net wealth. Married and widowed women and men do not differ significantly in their personal net wealth. Cohabitation as an alternative partnership status to marriage is not associated with significantly more personal net wealth compared with being single (independently of whether the singles never married, are divorced, or are widowed) for women and men, but cohabiting men have significantly less personal net wealth compared with the married.
Considering per capita and household net wealth, I also find a positive association between marriage and wealth for women and men, as expected in H4 and H5 (Table 3). Married women have 357 % (= 100 × [ exp(1.519) – 1]) more IHS-transformed per capita wealth (689 % = 100 × [exp(2.065) – 1] IHS-transformed household net wealth) than never-married women. For men, the difference is 845 % (= 100 × [exp(2.246) – 1]) and 1,650 % (= 100 × [exp(2.862) – 1]), respectively. The gender differences are substantially large but statistically nonsignificant and not in the direction expected in H6 (which predicted that women’s wealth would be larger than men’s). All models in Table 3 also include linear and quadratic terms for age and number of children and the time-invariant control variables, which are not presented here. All control variables are associated with wealth in the expected directions.
Prospective Analyses of the Immediate Wealth Premium
As expected in H1 (for women) and H2 (for men), fixed-effects regression results show that the entry into first marriage is associated with significant within-person changes toward more personal net wealth for women and men aged 18–60 in the short run (Table 4). Women gain 292 % (= 100 × [exp(1.367) – 1]) IHS-transformed personal net wealth when they marry, and men gain 435 % (= 100 × [exp(1.677) – 1]). The gender difference in the estimated gain from marriage is substantially large but statistically nonsignificant. The difference is in the direction expected in H3 (men were expected to gain more). The nonsignificance may be a consequence of low statistical power given the small number of observed entries into marriage. The estimated association of entering a first marriage compared with the never married with personal wealth is significantly larger than the estimated association of entering cohabitation as an alternative partnership status with personal net wealth for women (0.444) and men (0.576). The estimated effect of entering cohabitation is statistically nonsignificant for women and men.
The models also show that when entering marriage, women’s increase in personal wealth compared with the never married is significantly higher than when they divorce compared with the never married. When women become widows or remarry, their change in personal net wealth in reference to the never married is similar compared with women who marry in reference to the never married. When entering marriage, men increase their personal net wealth significantly more compared with men who divorce or remarry in reference to the never married. These models include control variables for age, number of children, number of children squared, being pregnant, and having a newborn child (not shown in table).
When entering marriage, women and men significantly increase their per capita net wealth and their household net wealth as expected in H4 and H5. Women gain 772 % (= 100 × [exp(2.166) – 1]) in IHS-transformed per capita net wealth (1,138 % = 100 × [exp(2.516) – 1] in IHS-transformed household net wealth), and men gain 1.611 (1.995) points. Again, the gender differences in the estimated association of entering marriage with wealth are nonsignificant. These differences are in the expected direction (H6), however, with women gaining more per capita and household net wealth than men when entering marriage. Interestingly, cohabitation is associated with more household net wealth and per capita net wealth for women and men, probably due to adding a person to the household, but it is not associated with more personal net wealth. The estimated association of entering marriage with per capita and household net wealth is larger than the estimated association of entering cohabitation for women but not for men.
Cohort Differences in the Marriage Wealth Premium
I find a significant gender difference in the association between marriage and personal net wealth in the retrospective sample using random-effects regression but not in the prospective sample using fixed-effects regression. Next to small statistical power in the fixed-effects regression or selection on time-invariant unobservables, cohort changes toward more gender equality in younger cohorts may be responsible for these differences (Schmidt and Sevak 2006). To examine potential cohort differences in the marriage premium, I rerun the random-effects models separately for women and men with an interaction between marital status and birth cohort to estimate marginal effects of being married on personal net wealth by cohort, marital status, and gender (Fig. 2). I find evidence for cohort-specific marriage premiums. Being married is positively associated with personal wealth for women only in the youngest and oldest birth cohorts. Women born between 1936 and 1955 do not have more personal wealth if married compared with the never married. For men, I find more personal wealth among the married in all birth cohorts after 1935 compared with the never married, but not in the oldest cohort. Gender inequality in the marriage premium is largest in the birth cohort born between 1946 and 1955, and there is no gender inequality in the marriage premium in the youngest cohort born between 1956 and 1965. Thus, even though cohort change does not seem to be linear, I find some evidence that cohort change may contribute to the discrepancies in results from the prospective and retrospective analyses.
Previous research has found the marriage wealth premium to be mostly concentrated in housing wealth (Addo and Lichter 2013). At the same time, housing wealth is more likely shared in couples than other types of wealth (Joseph and Rowlingson 2012). Therefore, it is relevant to test the association of marriage with wealth excluding housing wealth because inequalities between spouses may be larger in nonhousing wealth. To this end, I take the three total wealth measures and subtract from each the net wealth held in owner-occupied homeownership at the respective level of measurement (personal, per capita, and household) to create measures of nonhousing wealth. I find significant, positive associations of marriage with personal, per capita, and household net nonhousing wealth for men when estimating fixed-effects regression models for the prospective sample and random-effects regression models for the retrospective sample (see Fig. 3). For women, I find no significant association between marriage and personal net nonhousing wealth in either model specification. Married women are found to have more per capita and household net nonhousing wealth than the never married in the fixed-effects regression and in the random-effects regression.
In this study, I investigated the association between marriage and wealth using longitudinal panel data from the German SOEP, which records individual-level wealth. Consistent with prior research and my expectations, I found marriage premiums in per capita and household net wealth among women and men using a between-person research design. Going beyond previous research, I examined gender-specific marriage premiums in personal net wealth. As expected, I found higher personal net wealth among married women and men compared with the never married. These results were corroborated in a within-person research design using fixed-effects regression, which is less vulnerable to selection bias. Thus, the results provide stronger evidence for a nonspurious association between marriage and wealth than available in prior literature. Under the assumption that individual time-variant unobservable characteristics are unrelated to marriage and wealth, I found that marriage causes an increase in wealth. This conclusion is also supported by the novel finding that marriage is positively associated with personal wealth, which is by definition independent from simple changes in household composition that come along with marriage, while cohabitation is not associated with more personal wealth.
I did not find consistent evidence for the expected general gender disparities in the marriage premium. Still, several innovative findings indicate that some women may systematically benefit less from marriage than men regarding their wealth, which was obscured in prior studies of household-level wealth. First, among women and men aged 51 and older, I found gender disparity in the association between marriage and personal wealth, with women being less advantaged (although this finding depends on model specifications). Second, in the birth cohorts 1936–1955, married women do not have more personal wealth compared with the never married in contrast to men. Third, when housing wealth is excluded, women’s nonhousing wealth is not positively associated with marriage; men’s nonhousing personal wealth is higher when married.
In general, the results provide new and more convincing evidence than previously available that the marriage wealth premium, with the aforementioned crucial exceptions, induces similar wealth benefits for women and men. Given prior knowledge of household-level marriage wealth premiums, it was unclear whether wealth benefits may have been unequally accrued by one spouse. Measures of household wealth (regardless of whether adjusted for household size in per capita wealth) are agnostic to individual ownership, which remains relevant during marriage in systems with separation of property, such as Germany. Under the plausible premise that spouses do not fully share their personal wealth, such inequality may have critical consequences for disadvantaged spouses. Measures of personal wealth provide an opportunity to open the black box of the household to examine potential inequality and to provide critical evidence for individual-level outcomes. At the same time, it remains highly important to study household wealth in addition to personal wealth because researchers otherwise risk missing relevant financial resources that individuals may access through their spouses. Because researchers often do not know from their survey data to which degree spouses pool and share their resources, both types of outcomes should be examined.
Pooling and sharing may vary by type of wealth. Owner-occupied housing, which is the largest item in most wealth portfolios, more often seems to be equally shared between spouses than nonhousing wealth (Sierminska et al. 2010). This may be due to the high financial burden of homeownership, which can only be shouldered by both spouses together, and also the symbolic meaning of joint homeownership. When excluding homeownership and considering nonhousing wealth, the present study finds only men to gain additional wealth when entering marriage, thus indicating that for women, marriage is largely wealth-enhancing through the joint investment into homeownership with their spouses. For men, in contrast, marriage seems to be additionally beneficial for individual wealth accumulation in financial assets (including non-owner-occupied real estate), life insurance, private pension plans, business assets, and tangible assets. A potential explanation is that men are able to use their increased earnings in marriage to accumulate financial wealth. This is important evidence for specific gender inequality in the marriage wealth premium, despite women and men benefiting from marriage in general.
Several limitations of this study are notable. First, the measurement of wealth—and particularly personal wealth—is likely affected by measurement error. Within couples, personal property rights may not always be clear to each spouse, and perceived ownership may not overlap with legal ownership (see Online Resource 1, Section S.1, for a detailed discussion). In addition, the data do not allow identification of couples who opted out of the legal default property regime, and the prevalence of alternative marital agreements in Germany is not known. Second, a maximum of three points of observation limits the power of the within-person research design. Third, in the present study, I examined only the time-constant association of marriage with wealth, ignoring potential variation in the association over marriage duration. This would be an important avenue for future research. In this regard, it would also be relevant to examine how the within-union wealth gap evolves over marriage duration. Finally, the current study drew on German data. Germany has a dominant male-breadwinner model, which may increase gender inequality in the wealth outcomes of marriage compared with more gender-egalitarian societies. Thus, in more gender-egalitarian societies, there may be even less evidence for gender inequality in marriage premiums than I found in Germany. Further research from other country contexts is needed to examine potential variation, but such research is currently hindered by the scarcity of personal wealth data.
The findings of the present study suggest that marriage provides “institutionalized benefits” (Wilmoth and Koso 2002:265), such as legal security and expected permanence, for wealth accumulation of women and men that go beyond adding an additional person and her or his wealth to the household. These institutionalized benefits—at least in cohorts born between 1936 and 1955, and when considering nonhousing wealth—seem to be more advantageous for men than for women. This does not preclude that women participate in the personal wealth advantage of their spouses to some degree, but this comes with a lack of autonomy and financial independence. In light of previous research on limited sharing of resources within households, men may not share their enhanced wealth accumulation during marriage fully with their spouses. Thus, the present study suggests that women and men gain similar wealth from marriage in general, but some men’s economic attainment is systematically more likely enhanced by marriage than women’s attainment through wealth premiums in addition to wage premiums.
I thank Fenaba Addo, Barbara Fulda, Marita Jacob, and Yvonne Lott for helpful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. All errors remain my own.
Schmidt and Sevak (2006) found evidence that the marriage wealth premium compared with single women may vanish among young couples (aged 25–39 in 2001) after controlling for observable differences, but it is unclear whether this is an age or a cohort effect.
Theoretically, marriage also provides an insurance function that may reduce saving, but there is no empirical evidence to support this expectation (Lupton and Smith 2003).
Cohabiting unions may mimic some of the legal characteristics of marriage through private contracts, but few cohabitants do so (Wilmoth and Koso 2002).
Intergenerational transfer receipt of individual spouses may potentially contribute to unequal personal wealth, but empirical findings show gender equality in inheritances in Germany (Szydlik 2004).
Respondents who live with their parents are excluded from the analysis so that changes in household wealth at the entry into marriage are not conflated with changes in household wealth after leaving the parental home (Killewald 2013).
My main conclusions are robust to using a natural log transformation instead of an IHS transformation (see Fig. S1 in Online Resource 1). However, the gender difference in the association between marriage and personal net wealth in the random-effects regression is not replicated when using a log transformation, which excludes negative net wealth and 0 values.
Because this variable is used only with the retrospective sample, younger cohorts are not included.
I also estimated alternative models in which I included control variables for the employment situation (see Fig. S2 in Online Resource 1). I do not report these models here because I assume that employment is one pathway by which marriage may influence wealth attainment. Key findings do not change when I control for employment. Only the gender difference in the marriage wealth premium identified in the retrospective sample vanishes after employment characteristics are included in the model because the coefficient for men is reduced in the extended model. This provides initial evidence that the marriage premium for men is partly due to their enhanced employment prospects during marriage.
In additional analyses using unconditional quantile regression, which I fully report in Online Resource 1 (Section S.4), I find that women in the bottom half of the wealth distribution gain less from marriage than men.