Politics & Policy

The Choices We Pretend Not to Make

Society encourages marriage among the affluent -- everybody else, not so much

Josh Barro tweeted that marriage is in decline among the working class because of a shrinking wage gap and increasing female independence. This explanation is only partly right. Barro suggests changing cultural norms to accommodate women as the primary breadwinners. That might be a good idea, but it is not much of a solution for the broken marriage markets of the working class.

At the center of Barro’s story is the rise of female education, independence, and wages. If the decline of marriage were primarily about rising female education and earnings (combined with a distaste among both men and women for women being the higher-earning partner), one would expect an especially sharp decline of marriage among college-educated women. After all, these women have the skills to be economically independent and their higher earnings would reduce the pool of available men (those who are earning  as much or more than them.).

That is what we saw for most of the last fifty years, but recently, college-educated women have become more likely to marry by age thirty than non-college educated women. Given the education-and-independence story, one would expect the least-educated women (with the fewest skills, the lowest earnings, and the widest pool of available higher-earning male partners) to have the smallest decline in their marriage rates. We are seeing the opposite.

Barro is still right about independence, but independence works out differently in the lower-earning segments of the working class than it does in the salaried upper-middle class.

Among lower-paid wage-earners, the male’s (often not husband’s) earnings are dispensable not because the woman has higher earnings (which may or may not be the case), but because the welfare state will make up for a significant fraction of the working-class male’s income through housing vouchers, Medicaid, and food assistance if the couple should break up.

It wouldn’t be fun or easy. The woman, and kids if there are any, might have to move to a smaller apartment, but the short- and medium-term lifestyle change of a breakup is modest. And you can always find another partner. The immediate downside of a breakup is that you lose access to a fraction of the male’s earnings (because the rest is effectively substituted by the welfare state) in exchange for escaping one-hundred percent of the domestic frictions.

Both partners know this going in. If they don’t make it, it might mean a temporary disruption (the guy might have to move in with parents or friends for a little while), but the combination of the welfare state and no-fault divorce means that – for both the male and female partner – commitment is at least as risky as keeping their options open.

The phrase you hear, especially in the case of a not-altogether-planned pregnancy, is that they will “try to make it work.” Marriage isn’t a great bet for either partner. It should therefore be no surprise that women with the lowest level of education have an out-of-wedlock birth rate that is over six times that of women with bachelor’s degrees or more.

It looks different when it is a couple of upper-middle-class professionals. Put aside whether the man or woman earns more. If the guy leaves, you probably lose the house and the kids are on the sidewalk crying as the movers show up. Unless the mom has already lined up a new high-earning man as a replacement, the children’s upper-middle-class life is over. Medicaid, housing vouchers and food stamps aren’t going to bring back their lost status and lifestyle (if they even qualify for any of these given their mother’s earnings).

These upper-middle-class families still break up, but at a much lower rate than less-educated families. The anti-divorce effect of a college education is especially strong among younger married couples. College-educated married couples in their twenties and thirties are about half as likely to divorce as non-college-educated couples.

Our current system strongly incentivizes upper-middle-class couples to stay together while expecting the lowest-earning couples to “make it work” out of sentimentality.

The political class’s discussion of marriage markets largely ignores the factors that make marriage a lousy proposition for the working class, and nearly a lifestyle necessity for salaried professionals who want to have kids.

Even our discussion of the broken working-class marriage market is distorted by the experiences and resentments of our college-educated. Working-class women are dying of overdoses at horrifying rates, and we instead focus on how hard it is for college-educated women to find a partner who earns enough and shares their tastes in prestige television. Some single, college-educated women in their mid-thirties are either going to have to spend a lot of time sifting to get a man who both meets their standards and wants them, or else lower their standards, accept being single, or think about same-sex relationships. This might well be a problem, but it shouldn’t be high on our country’s list of problems. They’ll live.

The set of policies and institutions that incentivize marriage for the affluent and disincentivize it for the poorest is a choice. It might even be the best choice. Maybe eliminating no-fault divorce and changing the welfare system through eligibility time limits and reduced benefits would be too inhumane. Maybe Hungary-style child and marriage subsidies would be too paternalistically icky.

But let us be clear that we are making a choice. It isn’t just China, or rising education, or declining morality that altered the marriage market. It is also policy choices that we (especially affluent, highly-educated people) are pretending we aren’t making while pointing the finger at everybody and everything else. Maybe we are making the best choices, and those best choices just happen to work out so much better for the stability of our most affluent families and so much worse for the working class. Maybe, but probably not.


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