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The Economic Case for Marriage

“For richer, or for poorer.” So the wedding vows say. But according to a report just released [1] by AEI and the Institute for Family Studies, the married are more likely to experience “for richer” than their unmarried counterparts. From the report’s abstract: 

The retreat from marriage—a retreat that has been concentrated among lower-income Americans—plays a key role in the changing economic fortunes of American family life. We estimate that median income of families with children would be as much as 44 percent higher if the United States enjoyed 1979 levels of married parenthood today. Further, at least 32 percent of the growth in family-income inequality since 1979 among families with children and 37 percent of the decline in men’s employment rates during that time can be linked to the decreasing number of Americans who form and maintain stable, married families.

Growing up with both parents (in an intact family) is strongly associated with more education, work, and income among today’s young men and women. Young men and women from intact families enjoy an annual “intact family premium” that amounts to $6,500 and $4,700, respectively, over the incomes of their peers from single-parent families.

The report’s findings all align with common-sense assumptions: marriage in which both parents work result in the financial stability of a two-income household. If a wife does not work, then the husband feels the pressure and responsibility associated with providing for a family, and thus is more likely to consider how diligently he works, and how many hours of work he puts in. The findings given here related to children and their education make sense, as well: children in strong married families are more likely to have the financial and parental stability necessary to achieve many of their college and career aspirations.

These findings are very important for today’s marriage debate. In talking about how to decrease American poverty, some conservatives have tried to point out the role that marriage can play—but their suggestions have often been ignored or dismissed. This report adds a needed statistical edge to that conversation.

But there are also some important caveats and counter-arguments to present when considering the report. First, the data provided does not reflect the “shadow” of prosperous and happy marriages: namely, the American story of schismatic, painful, and damaging divorce. For all the stories of success that marriage brings, there are also stories of lives ripped apart by divorce. It has a significant impact on young and old, finances and social wellbeing.

Second, this report’s approach to the issue of marriage is obviously quantitative. It’s focusing on the cost/benefit analysis, as seen through data and statistics. It’s looking at the economics, not the soul. There are qualitative arguments that should be considered here—issues of personal choice and happiness that are just as important as the data (and indeed, have a significant impact on such data). All of these numbers represent individual lives and choices: people who decided to get married, and to stay married, even when it was hard.

But numbers aren’t going to be enough to make you marry someone (or at least, they shouldn’t be). No one should say to themselves, “Since marriage is a guarantor of economic prosperity and long-term wellbeing, I’m going to find myself a husband/wife.” Similarly, no one stuck in a frustrating marriage will say to themselves, “The data proves that people who stay married are better off, so I’m going to stick it out.” No. People get married, and stay married, because of qualitative and personal reasons: either their value system and/or religion promotes the idea of marriage, or they know happily married, respectable people. Often, both play a huge role. And it is these sorts of reasons: the deeply personal, the values and people that make up our very identity, that help us get married, and stay married.

This isn’t to say that data doesn’t have some value, but it does have its limits. It is very good at showing us our problem, but it isn’t very effective in providing us with a solution. How do you use this information to influence the way people in America view marriage?

The report gives some ideas on a policy level. It suggests the sort of gentle nudging, via tax policy and social programs, that slowly pushes people in a monogamous direction. Many of their ideas emphasize the need to decrease the financial punishments that often accompany modern marriage. We need to increase the economic benefits associated with marriage, so that people have more of an incentive to tie the knot.

These sorts of political measures could be very effective; a recent Pew poll showed [2] that money has a huge impact on how, when, and whether adults today consider marriage. Many men told Pew they’re delaying (or forgoing) marriage until they’re financially stable—while almost four-fifths of the single women said their biggest consideration is whether or not their potential spouse has a steady job. Thus, having political and economic policies that supported marriage via tax cuts or increased EITC benefits may have a positive effect on people’s marriage choices.

The report’s suggestion [1] of a social “success sequence” (page 50 of the report: emphasizing to people via social programs that they ought to finish high school, work, marry, and become a parent—in that order) is good, but limited in its ability to encourage broad change, I think. This sort of sequence is already largely emphasized in high schools and colleges today, yet we still see many high school dropouts, single mothers, and cohabitation trends throughout modern society.

Rather, it seems more likely that the examples and trendsetters we present to young people—the “success sequence” personalized—will have a more significant effect. Young people respond to the role models they see placed before them, whether they be Kim Kardashian or Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke or Derek Jeter. Obviously, the role models we show young people today rarely follow the “success sequence” themselves. That is why strong marriages—like the Obama’s—are important for young people to see. It’s why we need to emphasize family, friendship, diligence, and love in pop culture—not just fame, feelings, entertainment, and sex.

There’s a civic element here that the report rightly points out: religious and civic organizations can play a role in encouraging and supporting marriage. The report suggests that, whether through support groups or philanthropic programs, these organizations can help marriages survive and flourish. These could include providing marriage or finance classes, discounted or free clothing or furniture, job or child support, mentorship programs or regular family activities and events. The report recommends targeting men, specifically, through employment opportunities, men’s ministries, and other resources.

These are the sorts of measures that have a human face. They’re the sorts of efforts that turn numbers and stats into helping hands and listening ears. And if we’re going to stop the decline of marriage in America, it’s these personal, case-by-case initiatives that are going to turn things around.

Follow @gracyolmstead [3]

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "The Economic Case for Marriage"

#1 Comment By JonF On October 28, 2014 @ 6:45 am

The causation is in the other direction: Financially stable people have higher marriage rates. Marriage no more makes people financially successful than home ownership does.

#2 Comment By La Lubu On October 28, 2014 @ 7:37 am

There’s [4], but here’s [5] that might shed some more light—read the first chapter that’s previewed, then revisit your post. (hint: Section 8 vouchers and EITC aren’t enough.)

#3 Comment By Frank Stain On October 28, 2014 @ 8:23 am

In talking about how to decrease American poverty, some conservatives have tried to point out the role that marriage can play—but their suggestions have often been ignored or dismissed.

I’m not sure that’s entirely true, Gracy. I doubt anybody would deny that marriage would improve the economic circumstances of the poor and middling. But what some people have objected to is the fact that conservatives have tended to take a punitive approach to this. And a punitive approach is seriously likely to be counterproductive, not helpful. Take Ross Douthat, for example. He wrote in his NYT column earlier this year that a conservative shift on abortion, including a second-trimester abortion ban, would work wonders for marriage (presumably because forcing women to have the baby would also work to force them to marry)
[6]

It’s also a bit strange that you say ‘having political and economic policies that supported marriage via tax cuts or increased EITC benefits may have a positive effect on people’s marriage choices’. The report already claims married people with kids have 44% higher median income. So why are the bribes and extra inducements necessary? Why will they work when the promise of 44% higher income won’t?

The truth is, we have an ideal of marriage today that works for the wealthy and the educated and for nobody else. They have both the economic resources to make marriages of mutual self-fulfillment work, and the cultural resources to make marriages based on communication, trust, and equality work. The poor and middling simply don’t have any of this. That’s why their marriages are increasingly messy and dysfunctional.
Perhaps it’s encouraging that instead of seeking to punish people for not getting married, conservatives are now thinking about economic incentives. But I can’t see how minor incentives added to already existing substantial incentives is going to change this.

#4 Comment By John Médaille On October 28, 2014 @ 9:36 am

Cause and effect are reversed in this. Or at least, the comfortable assumption that the author makes ought to be more carefully examined.

#5 Comment By grumpy realist On October 28, 2014 @ 2:56 pm

If the groups on the right want to REALLY make marriages and children something to be desired, they would take a big whack at making certain that good, decently-paying jobs with protection and benefits are available to people who haven’t gone through college.

#6 Comment By Tim D. On October 28, 2014 @ 3:24 pm

What helps marriage stability is income. Money is one of the biggest sources of arguments between couples, and financially strapped couples are more likely to divorce. Raising people’s wages which has stagnated for decades would help tremendously.

Then again, there is a cultural aspect to this too. Thank the Lord for the divorce trend started by the people who yell about it the most, the Baby Boomers!

#7 Comment By ginger On October 28, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

“The truth is, we have an ideal of marriage today that works for the wealthy and the educated and for nobody else.”

This is definitely an elephant in the room–our expectations for marriage are very different now than they were in ages past. Most of us would not settle for what our ancestors did in marriage. We want a marriage of equals, friends, confidantes, lovers, built on mutual trust and respect. These were not the marriages my grandmothers, great-grandmothers, or anybody else as far back as anybody in my family can remember, lived and experienced. Oh sure, they stuck it out–they really didn’t have any choice in the matter. But they were far from happy in marriage and did not have what most couples nowadays want.

And few people are able to live out the modern-day ideal, although the wealthy certainly seem generally better able to sustain something close to it than the poor do. For better or for worse, people don’t want to settle for less nowadays. (pun intended)

I’ve been happily married for 23 years and very grateful for it, but quite frankly, if my only choice had been the kinds of marriages most of my ancestors in living memory experienced, I would have remained single. Better to be single than miserably yoked.

#8 Comment By Will On October 28, 2014 @ 4:52 pm

“The truth is, we have an ideal of marriage today that works for the wealthy and the educated and for nobody else. They have both the economic resources to make marriages of mutual self-fulfillment work, and the cultural resources to make marriages based on communication, trust, and equality work. The poor and middling simply don’t have any of this. That’s why their marriages are increasingly messy and dysfunctional.”

Basically, the poor and middling lack the cultural resources (i.e., they have little experience of seeing what a successful marriage looks like) to be successful in marriage. If you can’t manage to be successful in a relationship with one person, then how can employers expect these damaged individuals know anything about the communication, trust and equality one needs to be successful in a workplace. And so the cycle continues, as why would they warrant more pay?

#9 Comment By FL Transplant On October 28, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

Did the report consider the deadweight loss of the costs of divorce? those I’ve know who have divorced in my middle-class venue end up paying tens of thousands in costs (everything from the costs of lawyers to the costs involved in selling homes) and suffer diminished economic prospects. From what I could se, the report did not draw any difference between unmarried head of households and formerly married heads of households, negating the distinction.

I certainly agree that a first marriage usually leads to improved economic circumstances for the participants, but a divorce in that marriage can be financially devastating. There is a consideration of the potential for the costs of divorce which some of those I know consider when making the decision to marry or not (particularly men). Wh marry when there’s a significant chance (50%) that doing so will leave you impoverished when compared with the alternative of co-habitating?

#10 Comment By FL Transplant On October 28, 2014 @ 5:11 pm

Did the report consider the deadweight loss of the costs of divorce? Those I’ve know who have divorced in my middle-class venue end up paying tens of thousands in costs (everything from the costs of lawyers to the costs involved in selling homes) and suffer diminished economic prospects. From what I could see, the report did not draw any difference between unmarried head of households and formerly married heads of households, negating the distinction.

I certainly agree that a first marriage usually leads to improved economic circumstances for the participants, but a divorce in that marriage can be financially devastating. There is a consideration of the potential for the costs of divorce which some of those I know consider when making the decision to marry or not (particularly men). Why marry when there’s a significant chance (50%) that doing so will leave you impoverished when compared with the alternative of co-habitating?

#11 Comment By La Lubu On October 28, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

Basically, the poor and middling lack the cultural resources (i.e., they have little experience of seeing what a successful marriage looks like) to be successful in marriage. If you can’t manage to be successful in a relationship with one person, then how can employers expect these damaged individuals know anything about the communication, trust and equality one needs to be successful in a workplace. And so the cycle continues, as why would they warrant more pay?

A statement like that makes me think you’ve neither been in a marriage nor a workplace.

#12 Comment By JonF On October 28, 2014 @ 8:07 pm

FL Transplant

Outside the 1% divorce is mainly pricey when there are children involved– and in those cases a non-marital split will be just as expensive since child support does not depend on marital status. A childless couple without major assets can split with fairly minor costs and take no permanent hurt from it, other than emotionally maybe.

#13 Comment By La Lubu On October 29, 2014 @ 7:39 am

I seriously recommend following that link to “It’s Not Like I’m Poor” and reading at least the first three paragraphs of that excerpted first chapter. If you want a grounding in why conservative paeans to marriage are dismissed, why they aren’t finding an audience among the people written about in this book, you need to understand the actual conditions faced by your “target audience”, and grant them the respect of knowing that their decisions are based on rational assessments of their actual conditions—not your actual conditions.

Unpopular opinions time! Life really does look a lot different on “the other side of the tracks”. It does no good to say that two income households bring more money in, when the more rational assumption (based on the conditions experienced by people in one’s own SES and geographic region) is that there isn’t going to be a second income—just the extra burden of bills that comes with a nonworking spouse. It does no good to reference the hoary Protestant Work Ethic when pay, benefits and opportunity come solely from higher education (or, *cough* contracts negotiated by those labor unions conservatives love to hate!), not “hard work”. It does no good to offer lectures about “waiting” to have children, when a rational glance shows that there is nothing to wait for—that there will be no college in your future, that there will be no good job in your future, that there will be no spouse with a good job in your future, and that by “waiting” your result will be likely be childlessness.

(am I the only person who’s noticed that conservatives love schadenfreude about childless “career women” and their meaningless lives, but then turn around and advise that same childless life for less well-heeled women? Does anyone else notice any dissonance about the conservative assertion that educated women with good careers couldn’t possibly find meaning in employment where they are offered respect, admiration, autonomy, and results that make a real difference in their communities and the world….but then advise low-income women to find deep fulfillment in a childless life of stocking shelves in a store or warehouse? Just wondering.)

More unpopular opinions time, that ginger alluded to in her response about what people want out of marriage. It’s true that both men and women (80% of women, 70% of men) want “an egalitarian marriage in which both partners share breadwinning, housekeeping, and child rearing.” But when you get down into the weeds, things get real interesting. When asked the question, if you couldn’t have that kind of marriage; if your choice was a traditional marriage or being single, which would you choose?….the [7])

Those findings were foreshadowed in “Promises I Can Keep”, but no one was paying attention then. Apparently conservatives are still unwilling to pay attention. Until conservatives are willing to support higher wages and benefits (and not crumbs from the table like EITC), employment stability and greater opportunity for both sexes, and family-friendly work environments for both sexes….well, carry on. Continue to speak into the wind.

#14 Comment By KXB On October 30, 2014 @ 11:14 am

So, as wages & benefits for working/middle class couples have gone down, the divorce rate for those groups have gone up. Also, as wealth is concentrated into upper income families (not through market forces mind you, but through rent-seeking behavior of those familes), those families report lower rates of divorce & illegitimacy.

Yet, we expect lower & middle class people to simply settle for their economic status, while at the same time fulfilling their role to society to provide stable families. They are to provide stable neighborhoods with fewer resources.

Did people really think that decades of union-busting, right to work laws, illegal immigration undercutting wages would not have any repercussions? Meanwhile, “professionals” who simply shuffle digits on a screen from one dummy account to another have seen their incomes increase beyond all economic reason.

Rather than cite the example of a working class couple experiencing fiscal difficulties, I’ll cite a young professional man I know. He is 15 years younger than me, and married his college sweetheart. His father was some sort of Protestant minister, so he did not come from money. He worked as a civil engineer and his wife was a dental assistant. But, he looked at his increasing costs to live in a nice suburb with good schools, and factoring in that his wife will stop working for awhile when they start a family, he switched careers into financial planning.

So, all those years of studying engineering as an undergrad were thrown out the window. He’s not a deadbeat, but given the career switch, can you say that his four years studying engineering were worth it, if he was to only switch careers?

This is a man who had choices. Many other people don’t.

#15 Comment By Patrick On October 30, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

Enough other people have pointed out the wage issues and the cost of divorce that I won’t repeat it, though I agree.
Instead, I’d like to point out that I think our country’s education system is increasing the economic burden of having kids. The quality of public education tends to leave much to be desired, putting pressure on parents to send their kids to private school if they can afford the expense. High school diplomas hardly mean anything these days. Most decent jobs require some higher education, but the increasing cost of doing so means parents have save or borrow even more to give their kids a decent start. You can hardly blame a young couple for seeing that and holding off on marriage and kids.

#16 Comment By MikeD On October 30, 2014 @ 9:57 pm

What JonF said. Or, in more detail: [8]

If this has been responded to intelligently, I’d love to see it.

#17 Comment By La Lubu On October 31, 2014 @ 7:52 am

[9] at the Family Inequality blog.

#18 Comment By philadelphialawyer On November 1, 2014 @ 9:25 pm

“Tall men are more likely to be married… than shorter men.”

[10]

As per the reasoning here, marriage makes men taller!