Next time Beyoncé asks for all the single ladies to put their hands up, there may be a bigger crowd than you think.
Nearly 118 million Americans, or about 46% of those over 18 years old, are single, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But that percent is actually much higher for women—a record-breaking 52% of them are unmarried or separated as of 2021, according to a recent report from Wells Fargo Economics.
The growing number of Americans who have never married, either because they decided to get married later in life or forgo getting hitched altogether, have driven the rise of single women in the U.S. The share of never-married women increased 20% over the past decade, according to Wells Fargo’s analysis of U.S. Department of Commerce data.
The growing number of single adults helps to normalize Americans’ decisions to remain uncoupled and broaden social trends. In fact, 68% of Americans believe that the stigma of being single is gradually diminishing, according to a recent survey by The Harris Poll. Yet, single women still tend to face more challenges when building wealth.
In fact, Harris finds three-quarters of Americans say that it can be more affordable to be in a relationship—especially when it comes to splitting everyday costs like housing expenses, food prices, or monthly bills.
And all singledom is not created equal, especially when it comes to gender parity. Women face not only a gender wage gap in the U.S.—earning about $0.83 per dollar to men—but they also run up against a wealth gap too. The median household income for married couples was $106,921 as of 2021, according to Census data. Single women earn a median income of $51,168, while single men make $70,525.
But it turns out the wealth gap is actually even wider than the pay gap, according to research from the Federal Bank of St. Louis. Married couples had a median net worth of just over $200,000 in 2019, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest survey of consumer finances. In contrast, single men had a median net worth of $57,000, while single women only accrued $47,000.
While that’s troubling, the Fed’s data includes both women who have never married, as well as those who divorced and may have commingled assets at some point. The St. Louis Fed’s research finds that single women who never married have a lower net worth of about $0.71 cents per one dollar compared to the median never-married man’s wealth, or a wealth penalty of about 29%. The picture gets even more bleak for single women with children.
But the persistent gender wealth gap highlights that it is more than just a “motherhood penalty” holding back women’s pay, Wells Fargo’s researchers point out. Especially since single women tend to be homeowners at higher rates than single men, and housing is a big part of most Americans’ total net worth.
Researchers at Wells Fargo, however, note these dynamics could shift as single women become an increasingly important segment in the workforce—and could leverage that position to potentially reduce the gender wage gap.
“The gradual improvement in single women’s labor market prospects could position them better to build wealth and gain spending power in the years ahead. But for now, single women often remain in a more financially fragile position than other segments of the population,” according to the report.