Is Marriage an Equalizer?

Given last week’s post was all about death, I want to start this post out with a happy story. The story is one of fast-growing household income. This story is fueled by the rise of women in the workplace and the increase in women’s wages. It’s a story where even though middle-income working men have lost out, those losses have been more than made up by their wives. In this story, people marry across socioeconomic boundaries and pick up any potential slack from a spouse hurt by the economy. In other words, it’s a story where marriage serves as an equalizer. It’s also a story that’s complete bull you know what.

The problem is that the same forces that have made wages more unequal have also made marriage more unequal. This inequality takes two different forms. First, the likelihood of being married in the first place has become more unequal. This has occurred because lower-income people have become both less likely to get married and more likely to divorce.

The second form of inequality is the increase in something called “assortative mating.” Sadly for you loyal blog reader, assortative mating is not the Discovery Channel special it sounds like. Rather, it’s the idea that increasingly, people tend to marry those from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. But that issue is for next week. This week let’s focus on inequality in the frequency of marriage. To do that, I want to start by talking a bit about the economics of marriage.

A Bit on the Economics of Marriage

Like any choice in life, the decision to get married involves a comparison of options.  Staying single allows couples to break up easily without any legal hassle or financial cost.  They can still live together and have kids if they desire, but the relationship is much more flexible.  Getting married entangles resources and makes it harder to split up. Marriage brings both legal processes and financial costs into dissolution of the relationship.  In other words, from an economic perspective, marriage is a commitment device.  For some reason, the phrase “Marriage is a commitment device,” has never graced the front of an anniversary card. C’mon Hallmark!

The gains of that commitment will determine whether or not a couple gets married.  As we saw a few weeks ago, in the past, the gains to marriage meant something very different to men and women.  Men got a commitment from a woman to help produce goods in the home and raise children. But the woman was unlikely to contribute much to the households’ finances.  Women gained commitment from someone to provide income for the household. But, also from someone who was unlikely to dedicate significant time helping out in the home.  In this world, committing to marriage made sense for almost everyone, because both parties specialized in one kind of labor that the other person did not do.

Today, the gains to marriage are quite different.  For men, the commitment to marriage still ensures them someone who will do a bit more housework than they do. But many of those tasks can be done more easily given new technologies, and men really are helping out more than ever (although not as much as they think!).  Women, on the other hand, gain much less financially than in the past, since their wages have (partially) caught up to men.  Clearly, the incentives for both men and women to get married have declined as members of both genders have become less specialized. But, the incentives have also changed unequally.

The Unequal Economics of Marriage

So what does all this have to do with inequality?  Let’s think about how the incentives to marry have changed for women with less than a college degree. And let us also assume briefly – an assumption we will confirm next week – that “like tends to marry like,” so that women with less than a college degree generally marry men with less than a college degree. 

Figure 1 shows that these less-educated women saw basically flat incomes over this period, while less-educated men saw large wage losses.  These women also increased their employment substantially, while the men’s employment decreased substantially.  You know some of the reasons why these men have suffered economically…skill-biased technology, the loss of bargaining power, and trade. While less-educated women have experienced the same headwinds, increased work experience have offset some of the damage.

Figure 1. Percent Changes in Wages and Full-time Employment for Those with a High School but No College Degree since the late-1970s

Note: The figure shows the change in wages and full-time, full-year employment for men and women Age 25-54 from 1975-1979 to 2014-2018 with less than a bachelor’s degree. Data are from the Current Population Survey March Supplement 1975-2019.

So, women with less than a college degree get a lot less out of marriage than they used to.  The figure shows how the society-wide trend that has altered the gains to marriage is exaggerated for these women – the financial gains are that much smaller.  Importantly, as you know, these patterns did not play out to nearly the same extent for women with a college degree. College-educated men have been doing much better.

You may be thinking that men with less Human Capital now have more incentive to get married and secure themselves a earning spouse. But, it’s important to remember that men often do not want to be the lower earner in a couple.  In a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 70 percent of respondents said that for a man to be a good husband or partner, they should be able to support their family. Only 30 percent said the same thing about women. Men that feel they can’t provide are therefore less likely to get married even if it might benefit them economically.

Taking it To The Data: The Unequal Decline in Marriage

Theory is nice, but have we really seen an unequal decline in marriage? The answer is yes, and the truth is that it has been extreme. Figure 2 below shows how in the 1970s, those with less education were more likely to be married than those with more. Today, it’s exactly the opposite.

Figure 2. Share of 25-54 Year Olds Who Are Married by Education Status

Note: The figure shows the share of people aged 25-54 married, by education, from 1975 to 2018. Data are from the Current Population Survey March Supplement 1975-2019.

So, what does this have to do with the lack of economic progress for middle-income households? Well, the idea that marriage could serve as an equalizer hinges on the idea that more and more households would have two earners. If male less-educated workers are losing out but less-educated women are working much more, then those households could still make more.

But, even though less educated women are working more, there just aren’t as many couples. So in the 1970s, about 40 percent of middle-income households had two-earners. Today, the decline of marriage means its only a third of middle-income households. It’s actually lower. The reason is simple — you can’t have a two-earner household without two people.


Women working more combined with constant rates of marriage could have saved the middle-income household’s income. That hasn’t happened. Marriage is much less common today among less educated people than in the past, and those people tend to be smack in the middle of the income distribution. Next week, we will talk about the less titilating than it sounds issue of assortative mating. But for now, know that marriage hasn’t saved the middle-income household because marriage just isn’t as common as it used to be. And economics almost certainly plays a role.

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