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Family Characteristics & Social Inequality

Are Wealth and Parenthood Connected?

Over the last several decades, raising a child has become increasingly more expensive, yet previous research shows inconsistent evidence about how parenthood affects wealth. In Sociological Science, IPR social demographer Christine Percheski and Christina Gibson-Davis of Duke University examine how wealth and parenthood are connected. They analyze data from the 1989 through 2019 waves of the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), a cross-sectional survey of U.S. families conducted by the Federal Reserve, for 41,625 households where the head of the household is younger than 65 years old. The survey included information on net worth, parental status, demographics, household income, and wealth-building behaviors for each household. On average, parents have almost three times as much median wealth as those without children. This difference partly reflects differences in demographic characteristics, such as age and education. But more importantly, there are huge differences in wealth among parents. Even accounting for differences in age, education, and other characteristics, married parents have had the highest levels of wealth consistently across the last 30 years. Mothers who have never been married, divorced mothers, single fathers, and co-habiting parents had lower average levels of wealth than married parents. What explains this? One factor is home ownership. Married-parent couples were substantially more likely to own homes than adults in any other household types. This pattern raises important questions about economic inequality resulting from policies that subsidize and promote homeownership.

Can Joint Bank Accounts Improve Marriage Quality?

Organizing finances is an important step for newlyweds, and it may set the tone for the rest of their marriage. In the Journal of Consumer Research, IPR social psychologist Eli Finkel and his colleagues investigate whether combining money into a joint account improves relationship quality across two studies. In the first study, the researchers conducted a two-year experiment with 230 male-female couples who had separate bank accounts and were engaged or newly married. They instructed 96 couples to merge their accounts, 66 couples to keep their accounts separate, and 68 couples to maintain any account structure they liked. In a second study, 507 married individuals were surveyed about their banking habits, financial harmony, communality, and alignment of financial goals within their marriages. During the first year of the first study, the researchers surveyed each partner individually once every three months and again at the end of the study. They measured the couple's satisfaction, conflict tactics, and how well they interacted to determine their relationship quality. To better understand the couple's financial harmony, the research team asked each partner how much they agreed with statements about financial habits in their marriage. In both studies, couples who combined money in a joint account maintained their relationship quality and increased financial harmony. The results provide causal evidence that joint accounts preserve relationship quality in the first few years of marriage, a critical period when the dynamics that couples develop predict how their relationship will progress.

Negligible Evidence That People Desire Partners Who Uniquely Fit Their Ideals

Although people often express strong preferences for traits and behaviors they desire in their romantic partners, do people choose romantic partners based on these preferences? In a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, social psychologists and IPR associates Eli Finkel, Daniel Molden, and their colleagues conducted two studies to answer this question. For each study, participants first listed their top three ideal qualities in a partner. In study 1, they then went on a blind date with someone they had never met and in study 2, they then brought to mind five people they already knew, including a current romantic partner if they had one. In both studies, participants next rated the partners they met or brought to mind against their chosen ideals, and also against a set of ideals chosen by another participant in the study. Finally, in both studies, everyone reported on their romantic interest in their partners. If people’s ideal qualities in a partner do predict their romantic interests, the partners they were most interested in romantically would match their own unique ideals more closely than the unique ideal qualities generated by someone else. However, in both studies, the researchers found that although participants were more romantically interested in partners if they believed these individuals possessed the ideal qualities rated, this was true whether judging their own chosen qualities or someone else’s. The unique ideals people said they desired did not uniquely predict the romantic interest they expressed.  The researchers conclude that real-life evaluation of romantic partners is complex and that what people say they look for in a partner and what they actually like may differ. 

Paternal Caregiving in Cebu

Can researchers predict how much time fathers devote to childcare? In Evolution and Human Behavior, IPR anthropologists Christopher Kuzawa and Thomas McDade and their colleagues examine family-caregiving patterns in Cebu, Philippines, and test the facultative fathering hypothesis, which states that fathers’ childcare is responsive to local factors. They expect Cebuano fathers to spend more time on childcare when they work fewer hours, receive less assistance from alloparents (nonparental caregivers), live further from their wife’s family, and have more children. The researchers used questionnaire data collected in 2014 from the Cebu Longitudinal Health and Nutrition Survey (CLHNS) and focused on 430 households. Fathers self-reported how many hours they spent on various childcare tasks, while mothers answered questions about other caregivers. The researchers organized 12 childcare tasks into three categories: routine caregiving (bathing and grooming), recreational (playing and singing), and educational (helping with homework). The researchers find that fathers who worked more parented less, and fathers with higher education parented more. For example, unemployed men reported spending 8.36 hours per week on caregiving, while fathers who worked 80+ hours per week reported spending 4.16 hours. Caregiving tasks also appeared responsive to the child’s age. Fathers spent more time on routine caregiving with younger kids and more time on educational caregiving with older kids. Paternal care did not appear responsive to the family’s residence, alloparents, or the number of children. The study underscores how paternal caregiving is responsive to some locally-relevant predictors and shows what family dynamics look like in a large-scale society. Kuzawa is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Anthropology. McDade is the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Anthropology.