Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. What could be more romantic than contemplating why the institution of marriage, a bedrock of our civilization, is in catastrophic decline?
In a new study, MIT’s David Autor, University of Zurich’s David Dorn, and UC–San Diego’s Gordon Hanson show that a decrease in blue-collar employment can lead to “a decline in marriage and fertility, an increase in the fraction of mothers who are unmarried and who are heads of single, non-cohabiting households, and a growth in the fraction of children raised in poverty.”
The basic premise that economic shocks can lead to changes in marriage patterns isn’t much in dispute; in a response to Autor, Dorn, and Hanson’s study for the Institute for Family Studies, the sociologists June Carbone and Naomi Cahn survey the literature and even “cheer” a recent Business Insider article on the matter. The question, however, is why it happens.
For their part, Autor, Dorn, and Hanson conclude that decreasing employment reduces both the availability and the desirability of young men. Male mortality rises, in particular thanks to drug- and alcohol-related deaths. In their study, a trade shock was estimated to result in 74.3 surplus male deaths relative to female deaths per 100,000 adults of each gender per decade. Throw in some incarceration and migration, and over time, there are fewer and fewer young men to go around.
Meanwhile, the men who are left are less attractive as marriage partners. The lack of work “reduces the economic stature of men relative to women,” which in turn erodes the benefits of what the economist Gary Becker called “household specialization” — women manage the home; men work outside jobs — and puts downward pressure on marriage and fertility rates. Indeed, Autor, Dorn, and Hanson find that a shock to male-heavy industries can decrease the fraction of young women who were ever married by a whole 4.2 points and can decrease fertility by two births per 1,000 women.
And those children who are born are more likely to face tough circumstances: Although trade shocks reduce the fraction of women with children, Autor, Dorn, and Hanson, write, they also “raise the share of mothers who are unmarried by 3.3 points and the share of children living in poverty by 2.1 points.”
The good news is that unemployment is low, labor-force participation is inching up, monetary policy is still pretty loose, and the steady depreciation of the dollar is giving import-competing manufacturing firms a shot in the arm. So perhaps we’ll remember this Valentine’s Day as the moment when marriage started to make a comeback.