Why Would Declining Male Wages Lead to a Decline in Working-Class Marriage?

Jason DeParle has a long and elegant piece about the growing divide in marriage and childrearing patterns between America’s BA-wielding minority and its working class majority. DeParle doesn’t really make a politics-and-policy point about this, but that hasn’t stopped folks in the circles I travel in from doing so.

One common argument from the left whenever this trend comes up is the point Kevin Drum makes that these marriage trends are superstructure and the base is declining wages for working class men. No doubt those things are both happening, but I’ve never understood how the causation is supposed to work. For starters, consider the timing. It’s true that inflation-adjusted male earnings were lower in 2008 than they had been 25 years earlier in 1973. But at the same time, inflation-adjusted male earnings were much lower in 1948 than they were either 25 or 50 years later. So by this theory we would have expected very low marriage rates in the poor late-1940s—even lower than we see today—which of course isn’t the observed pattern. What’s more, male earnings experienced a substantial local increase over the course of the 1990s that wasn’t matched by any localized turnaround in the marriage trends.

Nor do I really understand the underlying theory.

One of DeParle’s big points is that married life is more economical than single life, especially as a way of raising children. That suggests that at the margin people should be more inclined to get married if labor market opportunities are diminished (a point we’ll return to). Relatedly, it’s one thing to say that it would make more economic sense for a woman to marry a high-income man than a low-income man but it’s another thing entirely to say that it would make more economic sense to marry nobody than to marry a low-income man. In pure economic terms, as long as your husband has nonzero earnings and does a nonzero level of housework and childcare he’s on balance contributing.

I continue to think the common-sense explanation here is that we’re witnessing the consequences of increased labor market opportunities for working class women, rather than diminished labor market opportunities for working class men. For starters now the time series looks right—women’s labor market prospects have been slowly but surely on the rise for decades. And the theory makes sense—as women’s labor market opportunities have increased, they’ve got choosier about entering into marriage. It’s true that in pure economic terms even a low-quality husband is a net benefit to the household, but there’s more to life than pure economic terms. The radically disempowered women of the early postwar decades had little opportunity to make tradeoffs, but the more empowered women of the early-21st century have the option to say no even if it induces a little economic hardship.

What lack an obvious explanation isn’t the “problem” of working class singleness, it’s the persistence of marriage among educated elites and the emergence of the Stevenson/Wolfers “hedonic marriage” of joint consumption.