Marriage May be Fun, But Not For Everyone

There’s a nice brief from Brookings about the economy and patterns in marriage in the United States. Here are a few highlights:

  • The marriage rate among young people continues to decrease, but the change is long-term and is not correlated with economic conditions. The divorce rate has also decreased.
  • The median age for marriage continues to rise (ex. 28 for men in 2009, compared to 23 in 1970)
  • More people are getting married for fun (hedonic marriages) rather than for the gains from specialization that come from traditional marriages in which a wife specializes in housework and a man specializes in labor market work (Gary Becker marriages).
  • The declining marriage rate has been heavily concentrated among women with less education: “those who likely have the least to gain from modern hedonic marriage.”

There is no shortage of theories about why low educated women don’t get married — the decline of traditional values, rising male incarceration rates, more segmentation in the marriage market (i.e. fewer college educated men willing to marry “downward”), and increasing economic self-sufficiency. The claim that less educated women have less to gain from hedonic marriage is a new one to me, however. Should we think about marriage and income as complements or substitutes? The hedonic argument (to caricature the point) seems to claim it is the former: being married has the most value if you have enough money to take vacations and go to the movies. This kind of seems to fly in the face of that old cliche… “we may not have a lot of money, but we still have each other.”

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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4 Responses to Marriage May be Fun, But Not For Everyone

  1. Diederik Boertien says:

    Nice post!
    A few remarks based on my limited knowledge of the subject, so correct me if I am wrong.
    The Brookings brief mentioned cohabitation, but did not explain how this could affect the patterns observed. As far as I know, on both sides of the atlantic the pattern has been that lower educated females are actually more likely to have a partner (i.e. either cohabiting or married) at a certain point in time than higher educated females. There has indeed been a steeper decline in marriage among the lower educated, but when looking at partnering in general, they are still ahead. Reason mostly cited: females don’t partner downwards, while males do. It would be interesting if these numbers actually show that this pattern no longer exists and has actually reversed. The reasons for such a change might be very fruitful for debates on for instance ‘doing gender’ in couple behaviour (i.e. couple behaviour is determined by confirming typically male and female behaviour).

    It is true that there has been a trend, especially in the U.S., that females who are in economically very difficult situations shed partnering in general, and even decide to have children alone. I think this evidence has mostly come from qualitative studies (e.g. Edin & Kafalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage) and it would be interesting to see how big a part of society those females actually constitute. For those females, I would not see the problem as not being able to buy joint entertainment time. Instead, I think there is a more “romantic” part to the story. One of the benefits partners provide to each other is support in hard times, both financially and emotionally. If one expects a prospective partner to run into much more trouble than you will, partnering becomes less attractive. The qualitative material mentioned before has shown that, indeed, females in this category stay alone because they feel more in control of their lives, and expect males to bring a lot insecurity in their lives. Given the insecure labour market position and high incarceration rates for disadvantaged males, females in such neighborhoods can indeed expect to bring in disproportionate insecurity when partnering. The benefits having a partner provides in the form of emotional and financial support are smaller for these females. So indeed, marriage may be fun, but not for everyone.

  2. Diederick,

    Many thanks for bringing a demographer’s perspective to this issue (do you consider yourself one?). I’m not sure whether men are more likely to marry downward than are women (although, clearly who college educated men choose to marry affects who college educated women can marry). Of course, educational homogamy has increased markedly in the previous decades, see

    Thanks for bringing out the nuanced factors that could affect decisions to marry. I agree with everything that you say, or at least it fits my understanding as somebody who has done relatively little research on marriage.

    Here’s a thought experiment: say you could give every woman in the United States a 10% increase to her income (whatever her income is), thus leaving the income distribution unchanged but every woman with more money. Would you expect to see more marriages or fewer? And where in the income distribution would the effect be most pronounced? There are obviously two issues here. First, how income affects women’s ability to negotiate for better partners — some may choose to sit out marriage because the money buys independence, others may use it as a bargaining chip. Second, there is the independent consideration of whether its better to have more money for yourself, or whether you get more satisfaction sharing it with someone else. It’s the second consideration that I was wondering about, but it’s difficult to disentangle from the first issue.

    P.S.- when are you going to write a blog post for us?

  3. Diederik Boertien says:

    Thank you for your interesting reply Brendan!
    I have been thinking a little bit about your thought experiment, and I am starting to see your point.
    Let’s assume people want to fulfill certain needs before they spend their income on joint activities with their partner and that people in couples share their income. Couples who haven’t fulfilled their basic needs will split the 10% of extra income and spend it on basic needs (e.g. food, clothes). In this case the partner does not directly derive any utility from the 5% of income the other partner spent. Couples who do have fulfilled their basic needs will spend the 10% of income on activities where the utility is derived directly from doing something together. In that case both partners do derive utility from the 5% of income the other partner spends, for instance, on his or her ticket for the cinema. This is an interesting point, and I think you are right there.

    Then the question more in general what would happen to marriage rates if all women were to get 10% more income. I would like to expand this question to having a partner in general, thus also including cohabitation. (Firstly, because I know more about patterns when taking both marriage and cohabitation together) Secondly, not having a partner is more often due to constraints than not getting married (because the transition from cohabitation to marriage is in many cases a matter of preference).

    The data I have seen so far, shows that the people most likely to be without a partner at a certain point in time are the females at the very bottom of the earnings distribution, higher educated females and lower educated males.

    Own calculations from the British Household Panel Survey for 2006, percentages of females and males having a partner in different income percentiles:
    Income Percentile Females Males
    1-10 60.6 52.9
    10-25 77.8 70.0
    25-50 74.0 75.7
    50-75 69.2 78.6
    75-90 67.2 85.6
    90-100 70.1 88.6

    Also, see for a recent review article on the issue that found the same pattern in many countries when looking at education:

    The basic matching problem is that both females at the very bottom of the earnings distribution and higher educated females do not want to have a low educated male as their partner. For both groups of females having a lower educated partner would bring in disproportional insecurity and little income, which probably will not outweigh the gains of having a partner in many cases. Females do become more attractive partners but the problem is that there are no attractive partners available for themselves. Instead the option of keeping the money to yourself becomes more attractive for females. I would therefore expect marriage rates to drop in the case that each female would experience a 10% increase in income, and especially at those points of the distribution where marriage rates are already low. Instead, a 10% increase of income for all males could increase marriage rates at those points of the distribution. Because the basic problem seems to be the lack of “marriageable” male partners rather than “marriageable” female partners.

    Would your suggestion, that marriage is more attractive if you can spend income on time together, change this expectation? Higher educated single females would get even more money that they could spend together with another person, which should make it more attractive to have a partner. So maybe it would indeed increase marriage rates more for higher educated females than for others. Would be interesting to investigate!

    P.S. I’ll try to come up with a blog post in the next weeks!

  4. Pingback: Highlights so far… | Inequalities

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