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Intra-household Financial Inequality, Gender Equality, and Marital Dissolution

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As households have become increasingly financialized, family scholars have considered the consequences of assets, credit, and debt for family dynamics. Previous studies that focused on labor force participation or earnings found that inequality between partners has important gendered consequences for relationship stability. We expand on this by considering within-couple financial inequality—the extent to which partners hold assets and debts unequally—and its implications for marital stability. Two competing perspectives—financial equality and financial specialization—offer different predictions. Using data from the 1996–2008 panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), we find strong support for the financial equality perspective and little support for the financial specialization perspective. Couples with equal holdings have the most stable marriages. We also find that the positive association between equal financial holdings and marital stability is driven primarily by financial integration, or joint holdings. In some cases, we also find support for a modified version of the gendered institution perspective, as marriages with female partners holding most of the asset or debt are less stable than marriages with male partners holding most or partners holding them equally. We further distinguish among different types of assets and debts in our analyses, in recognition of the growing diversity of financial holdings and their varied implications for relationship quality and stability.

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  1. There are state differences in how property is legally divided upon divorce. Most states follow equitable distribution laws, which are intended to protect vulnerable parties by allowing courts discretion in the redistribution of household holdings. Under these laws, assets acquired during the marriage belong to the spouse who earned them and, in case of divorce, are divided between spouses in a fair—but not necessarily equal—manner. In the 10 states with community property laws, all assets accumulated during marriage are considered shared and are divided equally between spouses (Gray, 1998).

  2. For couples who only temporarily live apart, but who we observe living in the same house again later and indicating that they are still married, we do not count this as a breakup and re-marriage but as the same marriage.

  3. We also create measures of same race/ethnicity and same educational level between reference person and spouse and test whether our results are robust to the inclusion of these homophily measures. We check this because other studies have found that such demographic homophily is an important predictor for marital stability (e.g. Heaton 2002). Our results are robust and thus we do not include these measures in the models presented. However, these results are available upon request.

  4. We also run a logit regression on the main model to ensure stability of results and we find that the results are robust to this. These results are available upon request. We thank a reviewer for suggesting this robustness check.

  5. The 1996 through 2008 SIPP panels cover the years 1996 through 2015, though the topical modules collecting wealth data from these panels were asked at intervals during these years and the last year wealth data was collected was in 2011. For the descriptive statistics, we show just the years when the relevant topical module data were collected. We note this discrepancy between panel years (1996–2015) versus topical modules years (1996–2011) to avoid confusion over the two time frames referenced in this article.

  6. We examined these arrangements and trends separately for younger and older cohorts. However, the patterns were similar for both cohorts, so we show and discuss the full sample.


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The authors would like to thank Angelina Grigoryeva as well as attendees at the 2017 Population Association of America Conference for helpful comments on earlier versions of this work.

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Correspondence to Alicia Eads.

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Eads, A., Tach, L. & Griffin, L. Intra-household Financial Inequality, Gender Equality, and Marital Dissolution. J Fam Econ Iss 44, 373–393 (2023).

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