The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

No Way to Cope with this Economy

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Given the longevity of the economic shocks that hit the United States in 2008, news reports detailing the financial anxiety that haunts almost all American men and women are legion. Less attention, however, has been given to the possibility that married Americans may be coping with the hardships of the Great Recession better than their unmarried peers. Yet a study finding that women pursuing nontraditional living arrangements—especially single mothers—express “deeper and more salient” concerns about their financial well-being than their peers in first marriages, quantifies that possibility.

In this study, sociologists at Iowa State University examined data from a web survey of 368 women in households with incomes of at least $40,000 a year and conducted by Gestalt Inc. for the Women’s Interactive Sales Exchange and the Securian Financial Group. While the 2007 survey probed a wide range of financial issues, the researchers focused on the reported financial well-being of respondents using a host of questions to ascertain four measures of financial health: buying behavior; perception of current finances; perception of one’s financial future; and attitudes toward long-term care insurance.

As to be expected, significant differences emerged between married women and women living in nontraditional arrangements in bivariate tests as well as in multivariate tests that controlled for demographic characteristics, including income. When compared to the reference group, “married, no children” (from which no statistically significantly differences emerged among married women with children), single mothers expressed a number of anxieties over their finances. They were more likely to fear becoming a financial burden to their families (p<0.10) and to worry about their financial future (p<0.05). And they were less likely to consider themselves well-off (p<0.10) or agree that their financial house is in order (p<0.05).

Likewise, cohabiting women, including those living in a stepfamily, were more likely to fear becoming a financial burden to their families. Along with their peers in married stepfamilies, these women were also more likely—relative to women in traditional marriages—to view long-term care as a necessity, perhaps reflecting fear that their nontraditional living arrangement would not be long lasting.

The fact that the study measured financial well-being before the current slowdown should not discount the import of its findings. If women living in what the researchers term “nontraditional families” face greater financial worries during good times, how much more angst would they experience in 2011? Clearly, living outside the protective bounds of marriage is no way to cope with the economic uncertainties of a new decade.

(Kathleen Malone et al., “Perceptions of Financial Well-Being among American Women in Diverse Families,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues 31.1 [March 2010]: 63-81.)