It is Valentines’ week with the inevitable stories of love and marriage dominating the media. But there is another story that needs to be told – a story that puts a new twist on our society’s expectations for romance and marriage. A revealing data analysis shows the economic implications of marriage and who decides to put a ring on it.
The Marriage Gap from the Hamilton Project explores the simple calculus that two incomes are better than one. Since marriage has reached its lowest point in at least 50 years, the overall decline is bad news for family incomes. The story is particularly harsh at lower incomes since that is where the marriage decline is concentrated. The more financially secure a person is the greater the likelihood of getting hitched. What has not gotten as much attention is the degree to which this marriage gap contributes to the growing inequality among children:
“Children at the 90th percentile of the distribution of family earnings experienced a 45 percent increase in their family earnings over the last 35 years. At the same time, children at the 25th percentile of the distribution have seen real declines in family earnings of over 20 percent.”
Some have suggested that the decline in marriage is driven by a change in values or social norms. This theme, which Charles Murray explores in his new book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, is challenged in The Marriage Gap:
“A large body of evidence links the decline in employment and earnings for less-skilled workers to globalization, technological change, and changes in labor market institutions—changes beyond the ability of individuals to control no matter what their values are…Rather than focusing on changing values, a more effective approach to addressing both poverty and marriage may be to improve economic opportunities for all Americans, particularly for low-skilled, less-educated workers.”
Other research underscores that marriage is accurately viewed by women as an economic liability. Women need to factor in whether a male brings stable employment and a decent paycheck. As Stephanie Coontz, an expert on marriage observes:
“Today a woman whose pool of marriage candidates does not include someone with a college degree has good reason to be cautious, even if she has a child and could use a second paycheck. She will certainly end up better off financially if she marries a man who is able to keep a job and is willing to share his resources. But she also has to weigh the very real possibility that he will become an economic liability if he loses his job or misuses the couple's resources. If she forgoes investing in her own education or curtails her own work hours, as married women so frequently do, she could end up worse off economically, should the marriage break up, than if she had remained single and focused on improving her own earning power. “
So if the nation cares about marriage, the valentine it should send is good jobs. While a chocolate manufacturer may want us to believe that “nothing says love like Godiva” it appears that nothing says marriage like good jobs.