The Economic Determinants of Marriage

Discussions of family forms are often incorrectly inserted into discussions about egalitarian economic institutions. And so while I am not particularly interested in the family form discussion, I am confronted by it all the time. Here, I detail an oddity I've identified in those discussions and better explain the theory that economic trends are driving marital decline.


In reading these family forms discussions, I've noticed an odd three-step dance that goes like this:

  1. A conservative claims that the decline of marriage is increasing breakdown, poverty, crime, social immobility, and so on.
  2. In response, a liberal or leftist of some sort claims that breakdown, poverty, deprivation, social immobility, and so on are actually pushing marital declines.
  3. In rebuttal, a conservative claims that the liberal must be wrong about the cause of marital decline because all of those bad things are actually getting better or, at least, not getting worse.

I call this is an odd three-step because point (3) negates point (1), and in so doing, deeply undermines the case for why people are supposed to be alarmed about marriage decline. If marital decline is coinciding with declines in poverty, declines in crime, declines in teenage pregnancy, declines in teenage drug use, and no change in social mobility, then what exactly is the problem? Where is the dysfunction and social destruction it is supposedly causing?

Conservatives who tread down this path find themselves in a serious double bind. If they say marital breakdown is causing certain bad social trends, they are immediately opened up to a reverse-causation counterpoint that they will (for difficulty of proof reasons) have a hard time fending off. If they deny those bad social trends exists, then they have a social problem without any negative consequences.

Economic Determinants

In addition to the odd three-step, conservative pundits often seem to misunderstand arguments about the economic determinants of marital decline. I am not a researcher into this question, but like I said at the top, I have to read this stuff a lot. And while I wouldn't say there is any sort of consensus position on this side of things, some arguments strike me as more plausible than others. What follows is one such argument I've pieced together from my various readings over the years. It moves in three parts.

1. Many relationships are very miserable and bad.

Before getting into the economic stuff, it's important to note that many marriages and other relationships are not good and fun, but are actually bad and toxic. Partners can be mentally, emotionally, and physically abusive, as well as neglectful. Partners can fight all the time over how to coordinate their affairs (money, time, etc.). The list of potential areas of misery-inducing strife could go on for some time.

There is good reason to believe that it is probably fairly hard to cope with and work through this kind of strife. We know this because many people who are very well off and very committed to the idea of marriage fail to do so. Charles Murray divorced. David Brooks divorced. Newt Gingrich divorced. And so on.

There is also good reason to believe that relationship strife is far more severe on the bottom than the top. A number of indicators point in this direction and I won't go into them all here. But one very telling indicator of this is that domestic violence rates are much higher among those in and around the bottom, with some studies showing that the lowest income groups have five times the rate of domestic violence as the highest income groups. Some argue that this is because of economic/social class (i.e. low status men try to assert themselves through abuse). But whether that theory is true or not is not terribly relevant to this specific point.

2. Men's earnings near the bottom have collapsed.

The fact that relationships are often abusive and miserable doesn't, by itself, explain the marriage trend. After all, a good number of them have probably always been pretty bad. To explain why this same level of relationship misery has translated into less marriage and such, we need something else. And this is where the economic changes come in.

The first economic change is that men's earnings near the bottom have plunged over the last 4-5 decades. Using the IPUMS harmonized CPS data, I calculated that the earnings of working-age men at the 10th percentile of men with earnings have fallen by 33% since 1969.

The same is true of working-age men at the 20th percentile, who have seen their incomes fall by 34% since 1972:

The same basic story is true of the 30th percentile (down 29% since 1973) and 40th percentile (down 24% since 1973) as well. In fact, based solely on personal earnings (wages and salaries), every man from the median on down is doing worse than they were:

In dollar terms, the same graph looks like this:

The 20th percentile is down $8,000. The 30th is down $6,200. The 10th is down $5,900. The 40th is down $4,800. The 50th is down $3,800.

It's not ridiculous to imagine that the plunging incomes and corresponding status declines of men already at and near the bottom made them less attractive mates. Income is only one part of the story as well. Unemployment and precariousness create additional problems, especially insofar as they increase the risk of coupling with someone (you take on someone to support, but with no certainty about their future ability to contribute income). If you believe that this sort of thing also carries with it serious psychological tolls, some of which is externalized out towards loved ones in unhealthy and violent ways, it's even easier to understand how this might not be great for relationships.

During this period (as we'll see below), women surged into the labor force and saw their earnings rise, and so this has counterbalanced much of the misery you see here overall. But that doesn't speak to the operative question, which is whether adding one of these men to your family has, for economic reasons, become a far less attractive proposition than it used to be. It's pretty reasonable to conclude that it has.

3. Women have entered the labor force and increased their earnings.

Over this same period, women joined the labor force in droves.

Their economic opportunities also expanded as employers began to hire them in different jobs. Their earnings increased as well. This is pretty basic stuff, so I won't bother to rehash it all here.

What's important about this trend is that, for the first time, women in super-bad relationships had a way out. If your husband is beating you, and you have a job (even if it's a bad one) or some other way to support yourself, you are probably more likely to leave than if you don't. So the point is that, even if relationship misery levels didn't rise (which they may have), the change in women's circumstances made it such that the misery translated more often into relationship terminations. When you basically have a gun to your head, you are probably more likely to take the abuse and pain. That gun has lifted somewhat and so you see more relationship quits.


To sum it all up, this particular economic determinant argument goes like this.

  1. Relationships are often very miserable and abusive. This is especially true of relationships at the bottom.
  2. Men near the bottom of the ladder have seen their earnings and economic status collapse. This has made them less attractive mates, both because of the earnings collapse itself and some of its likely secondary effects. Diminished capacity to support others, especially relative to a normal standard of living, might also cause them to find relationships less attractive or even humiliating.
  3. Women across the board have seen their economic prospects improve. This has made them more capable of escaping or avoiding miserable and abusive relationships, which are much more common on the bottom.

I am not saying this explains everything. I am only saying that these are very major economic trends and the story that leads them to less marriage (especially among the bottom) has a lot of facial plausibility.