Editor’s Note: Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. He is the author, most recently, of “Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible.” Follow him on twitter at @familyunequal, or at his blog, Family Inequality. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
How rich is MacKenzie Bezos? How rich will she be after her divorce from Jeff Bezos? And how rich does she deserve to be after 25 years of marriage to the man who is now considered the world’s richest?
As of Friday, Forbes listed Jeff’s wealth as $135.6 billion. But by Washington state law the couple should evenly divide the wealth they accumulated during their marriage. Since Amazon was founded the year after their marriage, isn’t his net worth more like $68 billion, as is hers?
The answer to that question depends on the meaning of marriage. Until the late 19th century, under the doctrine of “coverture,” US law treated married couples as one person – him. Everything they owned was his, and he ruled the roost. The history since then has been an uneven progression toward women’s rights with regard to marriage – away from the idea that a married couple is a single unit.
After granting women their right to vote, this evolution included the right to divorce, the legal recognition of marital rape as a crime, and the extension of paternal obligations to absent fathers. Through the extension of individual rights to women, marriage has become more of an arrangement between legally equivalent individuals. It’s less sacred, and less oppressive to women.
Yet still, when a couple doesn’t create their own division of property by, for example, keeping money in separate accounts or signing a prenuptial agreement, they are in essence voluntarily relinquishing some of that individual existence. And in community property states, that means it gets divided evenly in the event of divorce.
The Bezoses have lawyers; they must have known this. Maybe when you’re really in love you just don’t worry about a few tens of billions of dollars here and there. Whatever their logic, MacKenzie should get half of their fortune because they’re married – unless they have made other arrangements.
But seriously, are we worried about either Jeff or MacKenzie Bezos?
There is a serious fairness issue here, but it doesn’t have to do with whether MacKenzie ends up with $1 billion or $68 billion. It’s that too many people can’t realistically exercise the same individual freedom that the Bezoses have – to choose to leave a failing or abusive marriage without facing crushing economic stress or hardship.
For regular people, beyond the potential for emotional distress, divorce is expensive. It involves not only legal fees but also the costs of moving, establishing at least one new household, and possibly assuming the role of a single parent (which is costly in both time and money).
While people may chuckle at the price Jeff is about to pay (President Trump said, “I wish him luck“), it is usually much more financially difficult for women than for men. The poverty rate for divorced women living with at least one child in 2018 was 19%, more than twice the rate for divorced men living with one or more children, according to calculations based on data from the Current Population Survey.
However unfortunate their split, we don’t need to worry about the Bezoses. But we should worry about two things: First, no one should be able to amass the wealth they jointly have. The reason they are so excessively rich is that taxes on the superrich are too low. Which means that, second, and not coincidentally, divorce is made harder by our insufficient social safety net and inadequate public support for raising children. And that harms women more than men. Higher taxes on the wealthiest – like the Bezoses – if applied to social programs that would benefit single parents or those who are financially strained, could make divorce much less stressful for many.
In fact, as I calculated in my book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible, for about half of the Bezos fortune – $62 billion – we could eliminate child poverty in the United States for an entire year by simply giving poor families money for living expenses. That wouldn’t solve the problem of poverty forever, of course, but it could lighten the load for a single mom – and it provides a sense of the scale of the Bezos’s wealth in relation to the very real problem of poverty.
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With more appropriate taxes on the superrich and a stronger social safety net, we could make divorce less damaging and less disadvantageous for the partner with lower earning potential or accumulated wealth – usually women. If we enhanced the social supports for parents and children – family leave, child care, health care, education and jobs with a living wage – that would help realize the unfulfilled promise of individual self-determination that we’ve been moving toward since the days of women’s complete subordination. And it would help ensure that the people who remain married do so because they’re happy, rather than because they can’t afford a way out.
Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos have that freedom, but too many people don’t.