Saturday, May 28, 2005

Women are more likely to suffer financially than men when marriages or cohabitational relationships fail, a new study says.

Economically, when either kind of co-residential relationship dissolves, “women are definitely worse off,” said Sarah Avellar of Mathematica Policy Research Inc., co-author of a new study with Pamela J. Smock of the University of Michigan.

For instance, after divorce, married men averaged nearly $29,000 a year while ex-boyfriends averaged $22,000, according to the study, which appears in the May issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

The financial loss is significant for both groups of men: Married men’s household income drops 22 percent, and cohabiting men’s income drops 10 percent.

But for women, the economic decline is “precipitous,” Ms. Avellar said.

The household incomes for ex-girlfriends fell 33 percent, to $19,000 a year, while the incomes for ex-wives dropped an extraordinary 58 percent, down to $16,000. These findings are especially important for black and Hispanic women because they cohabit more than other racial groups, Ms. Smock said.

Cohabitation can be economically beneficial, especially for couples who are struggling financially, Ms. Smock said, but the breakup is rough on women — particularly blacks and Latinos. She noted that almost half of these women end up in poverty.

The new study is based on a sample from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The researchers studied nearly 800 cohabiting men and women who ended their relationships between 1983 and 1994. The cohabitants were compared to 1,583 married men and women who divorced during the same time period.

In addition to examining differences in median household income before and after the relationship, the researchers looked at poverty rates and found once again that women bore the financial brunt of the breakup.

For instance, the poverty level for married men actually decreased — 9 percent lived in poverty while married but after divorce, only 7 percent were in poverty. Among cohabiting men, the percentage living in poverty rose, but only modestly, to about 20 percent from 18 percent.

But nearly 30 percent of girlfriends and nearly 38 percent of wives lived in poverty after their relationships failed. The researchers said both wives and girlfriends tend to have lower incomes than their partners and when couples separate, women have less to live on.

Moreover, wives and girlfriends are more likely to have custody of the children, which means more mouths to feed with less income.

Regardless of the relationship that ends, though, the researchers concluded, “women end up in strikingly similar positions; some just fall farther to get there.”

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