Income inequality leads to lower marriage rates?

Today’s New York Times carries a story that shows a correlation between income equality and marriage rates. From this correlation, the author, an academic sociologist, infers causation.

For me the article raises a few questions. First, are the data presented correct? This almanac shows a steady marriage rate, per 1000 population, from 1900 to 1970, a period over which the article shows a huge increase in the rate at which American men in particular careers were actually married. The author uses “U.S. born men ages 20 to 49″ for the chart. Just using this age range has the potential for distortion if the age of first marriage changes (example: if all men wait until age 50 to get married, the charted rate of marriage would go to 0). This almanac page shows that the age for men of first marriage did indeed reach a low point in the 1960s.

The second question would be why having an income lower than a successful physician or a Wall Street banker would lead to remaining single. A “poverty line” standard of living today is similar to a “middle class” standard of living in the 1950s. So two people who are officially “poor” can afford the same square footage of house and other items that were formerly considered requisites for being married. And if we still believe that “two can live as cheaply as one” (possibly even “three can live as cheaply as one” using UCLA Professor of Economics Bill Comanor’s analysis), wouldn’t people of modest means be more inclined to marry (or at least cohabit) than people of higher incomes?

A third question would be “What about international data?” shows that countries that are cited as examples of equality among citizens, such as Denmark and Sweden, have lower rates of marriage than the U.S. and higher percentages of children born to unmarried women.

There have been a lot of legal changes in the U.S. since the 1960s peak of marriage in the article’s chart. We have introduced no-fault divorce. We have introduced child support guidelines that make out-of-wedlock children equally profitable compared to children of a marriage. If you believe that one reason Americans get married is to realize an economic benefit by being able to spend the income of a partner, the law has substantially changed the incentives faced by Americans. It is no longer necessary to get married or stay married in order to spend someone else’s income (a one-night encounter in a bar in will suffice in every state, though the revenue is likely to be highest in California, Massachusetts, or Wisconsin). Could it be these legal and social changes that are driving any fall in rates at which Americans are getting or staying married?

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

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