Whether we tie the knot or not, marriage divides us.
The Impact of Marriage
In a traditional marriage, the husband brings home the bacon and the wife cooks it. Or, as an economist might say, the traditional family has a market specialist and a domestic specialist. Rather like a factory, household output includes children, meals, and clean dishes.
Alternatively, we could have what Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson called consumption complementarities. These couples no longer require market and domestic specialists. With day care, take-out, and dishwashers, and both partners earning income and both (or none) cooking, we have a new economic unit. Consequently, domestic pairs with the same education, religion, and even credit card scores are about companionship more than children. Instead of production complementarities, they have consumption complementarities.
As you might expect, those consumption complementarities tend to sort us.
But also, not being married divides us.
According to economist Melissa Kearney, “outside the college educated class,” marriage rates have declined while a larger proportion of children are being raised in solo parent households. With single self-supporting mothers less affluent than their married “sisters,” we have earnings stagnating for non-college educated adults. As a result, it is more likely that children with solo parents experience a self-perpetuating inequality.
Shown below, the children of highly educated mothers tend to live in households with married parents:
Our Bottom Line: Utility
As economists, we can view marriage through a utility lens. Utility–defined as usefulness–lowered marriage rates. Experiencing structural unemployment, men without a college education have had less utility. Consequently, their marriage rates dipped and the number of economically distressed single moms increased. Not divorced because they would then receive child support, these single moms are on their own financially. As a result, their children have fewer advantages than two-parent households.
The result? Ranging from the thousands of extra dollars spent annually to a time and school dividend, we wind up with what Dr. Kearney calls a “two-parent privilege.”
Always clever, we can conclude with the xkcd spin on assortative dating:
My sources and more: Thanks to the Boston Globe for inspiring today’s post on the impact of marriage. From there, looking for more, I found relevant articles by and/or about Melissa Kearney here, here, and here. Relevant also, economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have written about changing complementarities. In addition, do look at this Pew Research report, Slightly dated, still, it statistically echoes Dr. Kearney’s research. And finally, we should note that the phenomena we cite do not apply to the high rate of two-parent households in Asian families.
And also, several of today’s paragraphs were in a previous econlife post.