Curious Capitalist

The Economics of Marriage: Will “Putting A Ring On It” Cut Poverty?

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Michael McElroy / The New York Times / Redux

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, addresses the Ohio Christian Alliance luncheon in Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 18, 2012.

I have been thinking a lot about the economics of marriage, especially given that it’s such a huge issue in the Republican primaries. Rick Santorum has argued that to avoid poverty, all Americans need to do is finish high school and get married. But is it really that simple? To quote Beyonce, would poverty go away if we “put a ring on it?”

Not quite. Santorum is right about the fact that people who finish high school and those who are married have a lower chance of being poor than those who aren’t. That’s particularly true if you throw children in the mix. But that doesn’t mean that Bush-era schemes to push marriage to the masses — or Conservative notions about restricting contraception and limiting sex education to discussions of abstinence — are the way to bolster American prosperity. The causalities of marriage and the ways in which we capture its economic benefits are, as it turns out, as complex as the relationship itself.

As Charles Murray’s much talked about recent book Coming Apart points out, marriage is indeed becoming a luxury good: Well-educated, well-off people are more likely than others to be getting and staying married. Meanwhile, marriage rates for much of the rest of the population have declined. (A recent Pew study found that the overall rate in the U.S. has hit an all time low.) And the percentage of children being born out of wedlock is rising – to 41% overall, and 53% among kids born to women under 30.

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But it’s those last statistics we should really be focusing on, according to folks like Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institute. Delaying marriage, or not getting married at all, isn’t really a problem — until kids enter the picture. That’s when the trouble sets in, especially in the U.S. (In Europe, by contrast, adults cohabitate rather than get married at much greater rates, across all ends of the socio-economic spectrum, but many of those European non-marital unions are more stable than our marital ones.) There’s a lot of research showing that people who have children out of wedlock in the U.S., particularly at younger ages, have a tendency to move in and out of relationships, have kids with multiple partners, and create very volatile lives for both themselves and their children.

This point about volatility is very important, because there’s increasing evidence showing that poverty is just as correlated with volatility as it is with income – in other words, people who are constantly living on the edge are more likely to fall over it. And experts like Princeton’s Sara McLanahan, who study the correlation between volatility and income, say that pushing people who aren’t ready into marriage isn’t the solution. Helping people delay childbearing — in part with better access to more reliable contraception — is.

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There is one other crucial point about the economics of marriage that isn’t getting enough play in the primary debates, and that’s the fact that the end of marriage isn’t so much about the rise of welfare moms as it is about the fall of blue collar men. Marriage rates have been falling since the 1970s in all rich countries, just as have male wages, particularly at the blue-collar end of the spectrum. Plenty of experts correlate the two: There simply aren’t as many financially stable, marriageable men out there as there used to be. So when Beyonce sings about “putting a ring on it,” the problem isn’t whether guys want to but whether they can. All too many simply can’t afford a ring.

For a more in-depth look at the economics of marriage, and the debate over social values, subscribers can check out my Curious Capitalist column in this week’s issue of Time magazine, out Friday.