Currently there is either a crisis in marriage or simply a course correction. It is no secret that the percentage of men and women in the United States who are currently married has decreased steadily and significantly from 1970 to now. While there has been a significant increase in divorce since 1970, most of the decrease in marriage rates has come from individuals not choosing to marry at all. In addition to the general overall drop decreases in marriage rates have differed based on income/assets shown below.
Figure 1: Marriage rates for men between the ages of 30-50 by income bracket from 1970 to 2010 (1)
Females have seen a similar pattern with high-income earners only experiencing a small drop in their marriage rate, while working class women have seen a drop of at least 15%.1 One question to help characterize this trend is: are marriage rates actually in trouble (i.e. they will continue to fall in the future) or are marriage rates naturally dropping from their seemingly unrealistic levels in the 1950s and 1960s and will simply stabilize at a dynamic equilibrium point in the near future?
While this question cannot be directly answered at the moment it is important to determine why marriage rates have fallen in the manner they have over the last half-century to better understand which of the above answers is more probable. In the past and present three factors have largely driven the desire to marry or not to marry: cultural, economic and psychological. How these factors have changed with time should produce sufficient and effective base to address the above question.
One reason a drop in marriage rates should not be surprising is a more liberal societal cultural shift regarding an absence of inter-gender relationships. In 1950s and 60s individuals who elected to remain single were typically thought of as weird, strange, “players” and/or inferior because they were not able to attract a spouse. In modern times such generalizations are made much less often and instead remaining single is commonly regarded as a valid lifestyle choice. This change has made individuals more free from cultural pressures to marry in fear of being passively ostracized from society.
Changing attitudes with regards to remaining single was not the only change for attitudes regarding women in general have also significantly changed. In the past there was typically an underlying understanding after a marriage that the male would have the job and earn the money (i.e. be the breadwinner) and the female would stay at home and manage the domestic affairs of the family: cleaning the house, raising the children, etc. This structure made it imperative that women find husbands that could support them for their prospects of finding employment to support themselves were limited, even with the gains made from their work during WWII reducing prevalent stereotypes that they were unable to perform certain jobs. Over time the significant and continuous increase in participation by women in the labor force has changed this “understanding”, in the eyes of some even rendered it obsolete. Therefore, for a number of women marriage was no longer the principal method in which one could find economic support.
In addition to the cultural shift in accepting women into the workforce, changes in social norms and the legal system made divorce less stigmatizing, but more difficult to execute due to increased legal complexities. These changes in the execution and structure of divorce proceedings are believed to significantly influence the desire of single individuals to not marry. Interestingly it could be argued that due to the legal and emotional complexities of divorce that for a number of individuals a divorce is more emotionally and psychologically taxing than a standard termination of an existing relationship (i.e. breakup), both in magnitude and duration.
Another element that is amplifying the negative associations of divorce is the cultural shift concerning co-habitation. In the 1950s and 1960s the chief factor that limited the amount of co-habitations was not that it was shunned by general society (although it was), but that people did not consider it a viable option in contrast to marriage. Therefore, even if someone had concerns about the negative elements associated with a potential divorce there were typically only two ways a relationship could resolve: breakup or marriage. Now co-habitation has become a legitimate alternative, which could apply greater emphasis on the negative elements of divorce. While a number of individuals do co-habitat before marriage, co-habitation is not the catalyst for marriage that some claim.
The chief disadvantage of marriage relative to co-habitation is the ease at which the latter can be ended. Both entrance into and exit from marriage have significant regulatory hurdles where as co-habitation simply involves moving some material possessions into and if necessary later out of a physical location. Entering into a marriage has some hurdles that can complicate things and one could argue that these hurdles provide a “weeding out” element where non-serious applicants will typically fall by the wayside. However, divorce is the real problem for even when a divorce is amicable it takes weeks, if not months, to fully resolve the separation.
An interesting psychological aspect of the fear of divorce is a number of individuals view divorce as almost an inevitable occurrence, that the marriage is destined to fail. It is strange that individuals would think in such a manner. How often do most people envision taking an action where the initial mindset is failure? The negative ramifications of divorce are only relevant if one views the probability of its occurrence as considerable. Perhaps such a mindset is reflective of one’s general standing in existence for high social status individuals (well-off college graduates) have not seen a significant drop in marriage rate versus those with less in their lives. Basically it can be argued that the further down the economic ladder one is the higher the probability that his/her life has had significant failure, thus the potential of a marriage is viewed as having a higher likelihood of failure versus someone who has had more success in life.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) could also prove a detriment to marriage as one of the few remaining tangible benefits acquired from marriage over co-habitation is that spouses can share health insurance meaning that one person who could not afford or be eligible for health insurance could be covered under their spouse’s policy. However, the ACA forces insurance companies to cover all individuals regardless of circumstance and allows for states or the Federal government to provide subsidies, which are much more viable to singles versus married individual, to ease costs, thereby significantly damaging the shared healthcare advantage of marriage. Whether or not this will influence marriage rates is unclear, though it is theoretically plausible that there should be little change because in modern times the acquisition of health insurance was not a significant motivation for marriage.
While there is no argument that individuals who marry have better physical and mental health outcomes than individuals who remain single, there is less certainty regarding the differences in health outcomes between married and co-habitating individuals. However, a majority of the research appears to come down on the side of marriage regarding the better health outcomes in part because marriage produces higher probabilities for quality relationships, but there does not appear to be a decisive difference between the two.2-4
There are two major rationalities for this result. First, individuals who marry recognize the strong loving bond they have with their significant other and maintaining a quality relationship is simply easier due to these positive connections. In essence these individuals gain almost a status-based ego boost from the marriage, viewing it as the “ultimate level” in relationship status. Second, the “fear” of divorce may actually be beneficial on some level as the difficulties surrounding divorce could force individuals to apply more effort and care in working through problems in the relationship improving psychological well-being versus co-habitation where escape is so easily achieved that a small problem could derail the relationship or is ignored and allowed to fester.
As mentioned above the advancement of women in the workforce has reduced some of the more questionable rationalities for marriage both culturally and economically. From an economic perspective the ability of women to support themselves financially has had a negative impact on men from a standpoint of their general marriage prospects. Women can now be more selective regarding whom they want to marry rather than focusing solely on “landing a man” because they need someone to support them.
This new selection freedom for women may have moved marriage from a quasi-necessity to a luxury. Unfortunately like most luxuries this produces an “arms race” mentality among many of the competitors (men) to demonstrate the value of a relationship. As women now have more freedom in selecting a marriage partner, males have to do more to make themselves more attractive, typically along the lines of having/earning money. Therefore, it can be argued that one of the biggest influencing factors on marriage rates is income inequality; i.e. the less money one has the less likely they are to get married because they are not an attractive candidate. There is sufficient evidence that supports the influence of income inequality as marriage rates have fallen much faster among poor and middle class individuals than among rich individuals.1,5,6
A number of conservative voices have lamented that one explanation for the drop in marriage rates is the penalties associated with marriage in the tax code. Originally the policies that have produced these penalties were actually boons to married couples, but with the cultural shift that has afforded women more workplace opportunities, these boons have had tendencies to become busts. Of all of the financial elements affecting marriage in the tax code there are two main elements that should have the greatest influence on marriage rates: joint filing, including association with welfare benefits, and the Social Security spousal benefit.
In modern times joint filing has become a poor motivator for marriage. First of all a joint filing is significantly more complicated than individual filing creating undue stress regarding potential benefits and detriments from the rate brackets and income divisions within the couple. Unfortunately most of the time a joint filing in a two-occupation household forces the married couple to pay more in taxes. Joint filing was designed around the traditional idea of a marriage where one individual (typically the male) works to support the rest of the family financially and the female works to support the family domestically, thus because the female does not get paid the rules associated with joint filing typically produced a lower tax rate.
Overall depending on the income disparity there are two possible outcomes for a married couple where both individuals have jobs: 1) if the individuals are in different taxable income brackets the one in the higher bracket will typically pay less and the one in the lower bracket will typically pay more due to income averaging; 2) if the individuals are in the same taxable income bracket both typically pay more. The possibility for greater payment occurs because while income is summed, the boundaries defining the various tax brackets, after the first two brackets (10% and 15%), are not proportionally maintained versus their single boundary counterparts. For example in a tax filing for a single individual the boundaries defining a 25% rate are $36,901 to $89,350 whereas in a joint filing the boundaries are $73,801 to $148,850, note how $29,850 dollars has been removed from the upper boundary.
Based on the above rules while there may be a small benefit to certain individuals who marry someone below their income brackets, in practice only a minority of marriages involve crossing income brackets to the point where this element is relevant; therefore, a majority of individuals who get married will suffer increased taxes. In fact the individuals with the highest probability of receiving a tax benefit from joint filing are those who need it the least, the rich. However, the most problematic element of direct tax bracket assignment of joint filing affects middle class marriage because those individuals have overall less money to lose than rich individuals when suffering the penalty.
The direct income summation tax penalty can influence the marriage potential of all parties; however, this summation has a greater indirect negative influence on the poor because of its association with the welfare system. Understandably the welfare system has an income ceiling one must be below in order to claim benefits, but when two welfare recipients near this ceiling marry the income summation disqualifies both from receiving further benefits. Therefore, this structure of how one qualifies for welfare benefits when married produces another economic obstacle to motivating poorer individuals to marry versus co-habitation.
The spousal benefit in Social Security is the second problem in the economics of the modern marriage. The original design envisioned a traditional marriage where the individual with the job (typically the male) who paid into Social Security would receive standard benefits associated with that payment whereas the individual without the job (typically the female) would receive a benefit approximately one-half the size based on marriage. Overall this “traditional couple design” would result in a retirement benefit of approximately 150% the benefit of a single individual. The purpose of the design was to act as insurance to protect the non-working spouse against the loss of the worker’s wage. Note that this benefit can apply to divorced women who were married for a certain period of time.
However, once again the design was meant for a single worker marriage. Working wives pay full Social Security payroll taxes, but the benefits derived from these payments compete with this spousal benefit, i.e. they only get to claim the one of higher value. Since most males make more money than their wives and typically work longer (although this latter aspect may be changing) the spousal benefit will frequently be larger. Therefore, these working wives collect the same Social Security benefit they would have received had they not worked at all, thus all of the payroll taxes paid provide no future benefit instead it is simply lost income to the government. Overall while there is some loss of funds due to the lack of benefit from the payroll tax for the most part the detriment is marginal because working spouses still significantly benefit over non-working spouses due to the wages earned from their employment.
One simple way of dealing with this problem is eliminating the spousal benefit, but taking such action would leave most women worse off because the overall benefit from their payroll tax benefit is less than the spousal benefit; women who function in the traditional homemaker role in marriage would be hurt even more. However, some would argue that “traditional” marriages have become rare due to both the increased number of working women and the decreased number of marriages, thus any detriment to this element is marginal. Another point of contention is any change to the spousal benefit must have a phase-out period because of individuals who still rely on it. Overall between the two, modernization of joint filing to support middle class individuals should take precedence over changing the spousal benefit.
Another economic element that could influence marriage that has not garnered much attention is income stability or volatility. While somewhat crude, marriage can be thought of as an investment and anyone with any business acumen will agree that uncertainty is the most dangerous element in investing. High rates of income volatility produce significant levels of uncertainty regarding the prospects for financial stability in a high consumption commitment investment like marriage. Some research has identified that rising income volatility could explain a significant portion (one-third) of the decline in marriage.7
The third element that influences marriage rates is the interpretation of the inter-gender relationship along with how it begins and evolves. In the 1950s most courtships proceeded similarly starting with the male asking the female out on a first date; after numerous additional dates some couples engaged in their first act of sexual intercourse. If couples did engage in sexual intercourse it was rarely talked about, especially to parents. Finally after a stable and lengthy period of time together couples identified whether or not they wanted to get married.
Modern times has developed a more “hook-up” mentality where individuals who are not even in a formal relationship or even on a date will get together for sexual intercourse and then never significantly interact with each other again. Some conservative groups have claimed that greater access to pornography has reduced marriage rates, but to make this argument one would have to demonstrate that a significant motivator for marriage was the consistent ability to have sexual intercourse where this access was not otherwise available. This argument is defeated by the fact that sexual intercourse between non-married individuals has become rather commonplace due to the change in how people view relationships and is more easily engaged in than the longer courtship period associated with marriage.
Unfortunately for pro-marriage proponents it appears difficult to reverse the more lax attitudes of modern youth regarding sex and love. Some would argue that while when these individuals are younger this attitude may complicate creating positive future romantic relationships, the increased sexual freedom produces better overall individuals when they do decide to get married. Whether or not this point is accurate remains unknown, but appears to be a reach due to the existing divorce rate.
Overall of the three elements that heavily influence marriage rates, both psychological attitudes towards sex and love and most cultural elements appear too difficult to change. The casual attitudes towards sex are too ubiquitous whereas reverting the cultural gains made by women would be immoral and eliminating the acceptance of co-habitation appears irrational as well as incredibly improbable. Therefore, the chief element that remains available for significant positive action to increase marriage rates is economic influence as well as some more minor cultural elements.
One of the more bold and potentially effective ways to produce a better economic environment to improve marriage rates would be to neutralize the negative influence of income inequality and volatility through passing a guaranteed basic income (GBI). A GBI would make marriage more attractive to individuals by producing a decrease in economic volatility due to a constant stream of income that can be used to ensure acquisition of basic needs even in the face of hard economic times. In addition a GBI could lessen the negative impact of a divorce if the marriage does not work out reducing the stress associated with uncertain finances in the face of a potential divorce.
While a GBI would be a sweeping strategy for improving marriage rates, it is understandable that the magnitude of such a strategy would face strict opposition from powerful interests. Another strategy to improve marriage prospects would be to change how a married couples files jointly adding an additional filing option that would reduce the negative aspects of a joint filing in a two-income marriage, especially for middle class filers, yet allow traditional marriages to maintain their tax advantage.
From a psychological standpoint pro-marriage individuals or groups should focus on the positive elements of marriage over co-habitation like improved health outcomes and increased relationship stability. Also effort needs to be applied to neutralize the general negative malaise that has allowed divorce to govern the conversation of marriage outcome by attacking the negative psychology that entertains divorce as the more probable event to end a marriage. Finally one could simplify the divorce proceeding in general, which would reduce the amount of resources that individuals have to devote to terminating marriages that are not salvageable thereby reducing the level of fear associated with divorce. Divorce simplification could draw criticism from some parties who worry that too much simplification will result in an increase in divorces, not a genuine means to improve livelihood, but as a crutch or escape valve when a marriage gets a little rocky.
Overall based on how the three governing factors that influence marriage rates have changed it is difficult to assume that the recent change in marriage rates is simply a “course-correction”. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that marriage rates are further threatened by not addressing the more pressing economic factors that produce obstacles to marriage. In addition it is important for society to focus on the positive elements associated with marriage like the health and stability benefits versus the negative ones like the probability of divorce. If these economic and psychological factors are not addressed then it stands to reason that marriage rates will continue to drop among non-rich individuals eventually characterizing marriage as an event that occurs more for the wealthy than non-wealthy.
1. Greenstone, M, and Looney, A. “The marriage gap: the impact of economic and technological change on marriage rates.” Brookings Institution. 2012.
2. Robles, T, et Al. “Marital quality and health: A meta-analytic review.” Psychological bulletin. 2014. 140(1):140.
3. Thoits, P. “Mechanisms linking social ties and support to physical and mental health.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2011. 52(2):145-161.
4. Musick, K, and Bumpass, L. “Re-Examining the Case for Marriage: Union Formation and Changes in Well-Being.” Journal of Marriage and Family. 2011.
5. Schaller, J. “For richer, if not for poorer? Marriage and divorce over the business cycle.” J. Popul. Econ. 2013. 26:1007-1033.
6. Martin, S, Astone, N-M, Peters, E. “Fewer marriages, more divergence: marriage projections for millennials to age 40.” The Urban Institute. 2014.
7. Santos, C, and Weis, D. “Why not settle down already? A quantitative analysis of the delay in marriage.” 2012.