Since the 1970s, marriage rates in the US have decreased 30 to 50 percent among younger adults, depending on demographic group. I have wanted to write about the economics of this for a while, and fascinated by this paper, had a whole narrative spun out in my head about the decline in some kinds of jobs for men, the exit of these men from the labor- and then the marriage markets and the consequences, including, possibly, extremism. But a Freakonomics podcast woke me up from dreamily walking into
Myth No. 1: Poverty is the reason for the decline in marriage. We do see in the cross-section of US data that poorer people marry less and cohabit more. We also see a combination of stylized facts that suggest that a decline in manufacturing jobs reduces the number of marriageable men via unemployment, addiction, mortality and homelessness. But the effect is not big enough and insufficient to explain the full decline in marriage. And the reverse is definitely not true: economic booms do not increase the marriage rate. They increase fertility, i.e. number of kids, but not marriage.
Myth No. 2: Looking at marriage alone is a nonstarter; cohabitation and marriage are the same thing. No they aren’t, definitely not in the world described by US data, and not for the group that matters most: kids. Kids of unmarried parents have worse outcomes in many different dimensions, education, health, wellbeing. The US situation is particularly stark internationally both in the achievement gap and the (large) share of single parent families. – This is not necessarily a helpful insight given that often single parenthood has not been chosen. But we will need to live with the fact that it’s better for a kid if her parents are married.
Myth No. 3: Declining marriage is no problem. With available modern contraception, out of marriage births are under control. Sadly, they are not. 40% of all children are now born outside of marriage, and of these, 60% were unplanned. Contraception can and does fail. More importantly, many people drift into relationships and into childbearing without much time or pause to reflect and plan for consequences. The sober chat before things heat up is rare, across the income spectrum and especially at the bottom end. But it shouldn’t be. Isabel Sawhill, the Grande Dame of researching declining marriage and its consequences, shows how the wider choices available today in terms of family formation require ‘planning’ rather than ‘drifting’ to arrive at a good outcome.
Judging from the above, marriage is an institution worth upholding and spreading. To that aim, getting richer is desirable, but does not help us increase the marriage rate back to where it was. What else, then, matters?
Fact No. 1: Gender ratios matter. When men need to compete for women, the marriage rate increases. For more details, see here.
Fact No. 2: Shotgun marriage has declined, due to abortion and contraception on demand. This is possibly the largest driver of the decline in marriage. – Tough news, I know. But it comes from Janet Yellen and her husband, both quite above the suspicion of conservative bias. – Don’t get me wrong, I am no fan of shotgun marriages. They still exist, and out of the ten or so cases I know, only a small minority ended in sustained long-term couple-hood. But all the cases created a nurturing environment for children to grow up in.
Turning back the clock on the social options available to us is possible only selectively. (The Amish don’t have the problem of a falling marriage rate. Neither has Ave Maria Town.) What else can be done? William Saletan in Slate makes a vocal case for holding unmarried fathers accountable as if they were married and it seems an option worth considering.
Fact No. 3: Marriage has decreased at the top end of female earnings: men still struggle to accept women as breadwinners.
No one less than today’s Nobel Laureate, Richard Thaler, delivers this fact in a very arresting NYT piece. He quotes research showing that ‘the trend in the percentage of women making more than men explains almost one-fourth of the marriage rate’s decline in the 40 years ended in 2010.’
One fourth. That is about as big a contribution to the fall in marriage rates as are declining job opportunities for men. Food for thought.