When economists talk about returns to marriage, they usually refer to women. There is good evidence that women, on average, ‘earn’ from marrying, through the husband’s higher wage. There is even a return to education that women can reap through marriage: highly educated women meet highly educated men (at university for example) i.e. the men who earn more than the less educated. (In some parts of the world, this will be the only return to education women will ever reap; nada with working outside the home.)
The news is that men, too, earn a marriage premium. But they earn it themselves. Here is how the story goes. Men who wish to marry make an effort in their job and by the time they marry, they actually have managed to improve their earnings. Marriage is enticing, and working towards it improves men’s professional and economic status. “If there were no returns to career choices in the marriage market, men would tend to work less, study less, and choose blue-collar jobs over white-collar jobs” writes Eric Gould who studied the subject.
There is of course the risk that you pick up the fact that more prosperous men marry more easily anyway (and got prosperous by other motivations). But Eric Gould controlled for this issue and managed to strip out the domino chain that links the prospect of marriage to effort rather than the other way round. Only pitfall: the effect only works for average and lower earning men; highly earning men do not improve themselves by dreaming about marriage, they are already motivated.