Choose wisely: Spouses consolidate resources in families

How do some families accumulate advantages in many different types of resources such as education, income, affluent neighborhoods and good health?

A key driver, according to new research by Cornell sociologists, is who marries whom. Their analysis shows that people match in long-term relationships based on multiple resources to create families with systematically advantaged portfolios, a strategy they call “consolidation.”

In consolidating multiple types of resources, partners deal themselves and their children better hands with long-term payoffs, but families overall become more unequal, the researchers say, a process that may amplify inequality across generations.

“Family resources play a pivotal role in shaping the well-being and outcomes of both adults and children,” said Vida Maralani, associate professor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Picking a spouse who matches one’s own set of resources is a way of reinforcing or consolidating a stacked deck of advantages at the family level.”

Maralani is the lead author of “The Consolidation of Education and Health in Families,” published July 16 in the American Sociological Review. Camille Portier, a doctoral student in the field of sociology, is a co-author.

While any single resource is important for well-being, the authors suggest, the systematic accumulation of multiple resources in families is especially significant for life chances and social mobility. To illustrate how consolidation works, they examined how people combine resources in two distinct areas – education and health – when choosing marital partners.

The researchers selected smoking as a proxy for health because it begins early in life, when long-term relationships are formed; it can be started and stopped; and because of its evolution into a highly stigmatized behavior that is the leading behavioral cause of death among Americans.

“Because of the stigmatizing cultural position smoking came to occupy in the second half of the 20th century,” the authors write, “not smoking has enormous symbolic value as a commitment to a healthy lifestyle.”

Using data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey, the scholars analyzed three cohorts of couples – nearly 6,000 in total – who first married between the 1940s and 1970s. Those years captured the period during which smoking’s negative health consequences became widely known and variations in smoking by education level emerged, with the sharpest declines among college graduates.

The data showed that highly educated couples became nonsmoking at levels significantly beyond what would be expected as a byproduct of the fact that people with more education are less likely to smoke. That suggests the couples matched not based on education level or not-smoking alone, but jointly on both education and smoking status – evidence of consolidation.

“College-educated people prefer having highly educated partners who are also nonsmoking,” Maralani said. “What is especially powerful is that people match on education and smoking as a set, creating highly educated families that are systematically nonsmoking.”

That trend intensified over time, the analysis found: College-educated men in the youngest cohort were 70% more likely to marry nonsmoking women than those in the oldest cohort. Highly educated couples were also increasingly more likely to quit smoking in the window between getting married and starting a family.

The authors examined Current Population Surveys, another nationally representative dataset, to assess trends in more recent years, when cohabitations became more common. They found the same patterns, which were stronger in marriages than cohabitations.

The research highlights the importance of healthy behaviors as resources that the college-educated increasingly seek to add to their households, the authors said. And since health and education are resources with long-term payoffs, their concentration in families may prove especially significant for children’s outcomes.

In a world where couples did not exhibit a systematic pattern of matching on multiple advantageous resources, Maralani said, children would experience a more diverse set of family characteristics. “But as partners consolidate multiple types of resources such as education and good health,” she said, “families become more unequal.”

This specific combination will become less important for inequality if people eventually stop smoking altogether, Maralani said, but the more general process of consolidating resources in families is unlikely to disappear.

“The consolidation of resources at the couple level,” she said, “is yet another way people with higher status maintain and increase their social position.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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