Distributive Justice in Marriage: Experimental Evidence on Beliefs about Fair Savings Arrangements

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Daria Tisch, Philipp M. Lersch

In: Journal of Marriage and Family 83 (2021), 2, S. 516-533


Objective This study examines fairness perceptions of experimentally manipulated savings arrangements in couples (i.e., distribution of control and ownership of savings) to identify distributive justice principles in marriage.Background Theoretically, competing norms about individual ownership rights and autonomy (equity principle) and marital sharing (equality principle) in interaction with gender ideology (entitlement principle) may explain how individuals perceive the fairness of different savings arrangements, but these explanations have not been tested against each other yet.MethodIn a nationally representative factorial survey experiment, implemented in the German GESIS Panel, 3,948 respondents evaluated the fairness of randomly presented savings arrangements (N = 19,648 evaluations).ResultsRespondents rated equal control as more important than equal ownership to establish fairness in marriage. The ownership of savings does not seem to be directly linked to control, providing evidence against the equity principle. Inequality in ownership is rated fairer if it is in favor of the husband, whereas inequality in control is rated fairer if it is in favor of the wife. This suggests that gender is an ascriptive characteristic according to which resources should be allocated (entitlement principle).Conclusion The results indicate that the ideal of marital sharing is widespread, but is rather accomplished by equal control than by equal ownership. Individuals' fairness perceptions of inequality in marriage are gendered, that is, depend on whom inequality favors.

Philipp Lersch

Senior Research Fellow in the German Socio-Economic Panel study Department

Keywords: family dynamics, family economics, family resource management, gender, inequalities, marriage