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Making the Best of a Bad Situation? Gary Lee on the Decline of Marriage

Summary:
Tomorrow, famed sociologist Gary Lee comes to GMU.  Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to discover his excellent The Limits of Marriage: Why Getting Everyone Married Won’t Solve All Our Problems.  In this thought-provoking book, Lee freely grants that all the raw correlations favor marriage: on average, married couples make more money, enjoy better health, experience more happiness, and raise more successful kids.  But he’s skeptical about causation.  In the end, he reaches a strongly functionalist conclusion: marriage is good when it happens – and bad when it doesn’t.  Along the way, he firmly rejects cultural theories of marital decline; for Lee, culture is primarily a response to economic conditions – not the other way around. Tomorrow, I’ll offer my

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Making the Best of a Bad Situation? Gary Lee on the Decline of Marriage

Tomorrow, famed sociologist Gary Lee comes to GMU.  Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to discover his excellent The Limits of Marriage: Why Getting Everyone Married Won’t Solve All Our Problems.  In this thought-provoking book, Lee freely grants that all the raw correlations favor marriage: on average, married couples make more money, enjoy better health, experience more happiness, and raise more successful kids.  But he’s skeptical about causation.  In the end, he reaches a strongly functionalist conclusion: marriage is good when it happens – and bad when it doesn’t.  Along the way, he firmly rejects cultural theories of marital decline; for Lee, culture is primarily a response to economic conditions – not the other way around.

Tomorrow, I’ll offer my critique.  Today, however, I’ll share the highlights of Lee’s position.  All of the following quotes come from The Limits of Marriage.  If you want more details, but don’t feel like getting the book, check out the paper he’s presenting.

1. Let’s start with a nice statement of Lee’s thesis:

[M]any of the advantages of married persons reflect characteristics of people who are able to marry, which they bring with them into their marriages.  Marriage is an almost universally desired goal, as much so, or nearly as much so, as at any point in the past.  However, because of demographic and economic changes, it has become increasingly difficult for many people to attain this goal.  On the demographic side, we have imbalanced sex ratios in some segments of our young-adult population, particularly African Americans, making marriage literally impossible for large numbers of black women.  On the economic side, the real wages of less-educated men have fallen since 1970; many have very low incomes or none at all, making them poor prospects for marriage.  Marriages to men with very limited economic prospects are unlikely to improve the economic circumstances of poor women and their children.  Marriage works well for those who can find economically attractive spouses.  However, one must be economically attractive oneself to succeed in the competition.  A major reason, although certainly not the only reason, why married people are better off than unmarried people is that better-off people are more likely to be able to marry.

It would be convenient if the retreat from marriage were due to some kind of cultural malfunction.  We could then constructively address the problem by education, information dissemination, and persuasion, for example by passing out copies of pro-marriage books, as Waite and Gallagher (2000) suggested.  And in consequence, those who are convinced to marry would then become happier, healthier, and wealthier because they have made the right choice, and their children would benefit enormously.  This would be a relatively inexpensive way to ameliorate all manner of social problems, including poverty.  As someone who has spent a lifetime in the education business, I like it when we can suggest education as a way to solve our problems.

But to the extent that the retreat from marriage is rooted in demographic and economic realities that prevent people from marrying, we won’t change the marriage behavior of our population without changing these fundamental underlying realities.  This will be more expensive, and much more difficult.  This perspective suggests that the retreat from marriage is not an ultimate cause of poverty, but rather a symptom of a changing economic landscape that has put many Americans in a situation where marriage is either impossible or very risky.

2. Lee is willing to be a one-handed sociologist:

With regard to the relations between marital status and both psychological and physical health, there’s some debate as to the extent to which marriage is beneficial.  Although the preponderance of the evidence shows that married persons are better off than the never-married and the formerly married on psychological and physical dimensions, there is some contrary evidence, some indication that the benefits of marriage are unevenly distributed across the population, and some documented possibility that the effects of marriage may be temporary.  None of those things is at issue regarding the relation between marriage and economic well-being; married people are better off.  We will review some evidence showing that this is true, and the extent to which it is true, fairly briefly; there is no contrary evidence to discuss.

3. He totally gets selection effects:

On the other hand, the question of selection effects is a very important one in the context of economic issues, and is also enormously complex.  Are unmarried people more likely to be poor than married people because they are unmarried, or is marriage less available to and feasible for poor people?  Can poor people in our society actually improve their economic situations by marrying?  Or do people on the bottom of the economic ladder have such limited opportunities for marriage that any potential spouse available to them would be unlikely to benefit them economically?

4. Selection explains why people who don’t marry are wise not to do so:

In the same vein, multiple studies by Dan Lichter and colleagues (Graefe and Lichter 2007, 2008; Lichter, Graefe, and Brown 2003) have shown that, when single mothers do marry, they are likely to marry men with limited education, unstable employment patterns, and histories of broken relationships.  In consequence, these marriages do little to lift single mothers and their children out of poverty.  And the marriages are highly prone to divorce, often leaving the women and their children worse off than they were before.  While “hot-deck” matching analyses (Thomas and Sawhill 2002) show that marriage with beneficial economic consequences are theoretically possible for poor single mothers, reality doesn’t seem to cooperate very often.

5. Selection also explains why divorce is underrated:

Children whose parents divorce did not have the option of living with happily-married parents.  The evidence to this point suggests that children of divorce would not have been better off if their parents had remained in their unhappy marriages, and may actually experience more positive outcomes if the conflict in their parents’ marriages was very high and visible to the children.  Children do best in happy intact families, but if happy isn’t an option it’s certainly not clear that remaining intact is in children’s best interests.

6. Famed sociologist says: culture is overrrated; economics is underrated:

I’ve expressed dissatisfaction with explanations of changes in marriage patterns that take cultural change as the ultimate cause.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.  But this doesn’t mean that I think culture is irrelevant; I just believe that the culture change itself has causes and requires explanation.  We’ve talked about some of those causes here.  If people’s experience is that marriage is not a reliable route out of poverty, if they see that spouses cannot consistently provide adequate support for one other or for their children, if they perceive shortages of “marriageable men” in their environments, their own expectations of marrying may diminish and their search for alternatives expand.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they value marriage less; as demonstrated by Gibson-Davis et al. (2005), Trail and Karney (2012), and many others, they don’t.  But, like the residents of Coconut Village in Trinidad observed by Rodman (1963, 1966, 1971), they need to find alternatives, which gradually become accepted and “normalized” as they are more widely practiced.  This kind of culture change, which has its roots in changes in the economy, can amplify changes in things like marriage behavior among groups most strongly affected.  In consequence, marriage rates decrease among blacks more rapidly than among whites to a degree beyond what we can predict from economic changes alone.

More simply:

It’s the increasing insecurity of less-educated men’s jobs in the United States that keeps poor men and women from marrying one another, and no amount of propaganda about the alleged benefits of marriage is going to change that.  Poor people often don’t get those benefits if they do marry, and they know it.

7. The decline of marriage is obviously not caused by “rising individualism” or anything like it:

Popenoe (2007) attributes falling marriage rates to the rise and spread of an ideology he terms “secular individualism.”  He defines this in a number of ways, including “the gradual abandonment of religious attendance and beliefs, a strong leaning toward ‘expressive’ values that are preoccupied with personal autonomy and self-fulfillment, and a political emphasis on egalitarianism and tolerance of diverse lifestyles” (p. 9).  At another point he refers to the “dominant thrust” of secular individualism as “the excessive pursuit of personal autonomy, immediate gratification, and short-term personal gain” (p. 12).

[…]

It’s not clear what it is about education, income, or urban life that leads to secular individualism, but Popenoe is quite emphatic about the connection.  There’s a pretty direct implication here that, if we were only less educated and less wealthy, we’d be better off because we wouldn’t be afflicted with secular individualism, which is antithetical to marriage.  We would then be more likely to marry, which would make us wealthier because marriage is associated with greater income and wealth.  So, by this logic, decreases in education, income, and wealth will lead to increases in income and wealth, through the magic of increased rates and prevalence of marriage.

Confused?  Me too.  But wait, there’s more!  Popenoe (2007, 6) has previously noted, quite correctly, that marriage rates have been declining and divorce rates increasing almost entirely among the less-educated segments of our population.  There is a growing “marriage gap” between college-educated people, who are marrying quite regularly (although at later ages, we should note) and divorcing less often, and those without a college education, who are marrying less and divorcing more (see Goldstein and Kenney 2001; Pew Research Center 2011b; Schoen and Cheng 2006).  It is people on the lower ends of the education and income distributions who are spending more and more of their lives unmarried, and who are also more likely to have children outside of marriage.

So, to recap the logic:  The declining rate of marriage is caused by the rise of secular individualism, which in turn is caused by increasing levels of education and income.  But the marriage rate is actually declining primarily among people with lower levels of education and income; the better-educated and wealthier are much more likely to marry and less likely to divorce.  Unless we want to argue that some people’s education and income cause other people to avoid marriage (an argument that, to my knowledge, no one has made), there’s a direct contradiction here that Popenoe appears not to see.  He does not explain how a phenomenon allegedly caused by education and income occurs most often in their absence.

Economists, pay close attention to the precision of the last paragraph: “Unless we want to argue that some people’s education and income cause other people to avoid marriage (an argument that, to my knowledge, no one has made).”  Yes, he actually considers the theoretical possibility of an income/education externality that counteracts income/education’s direct effect!

I suspect that many economists will find Lee extremely convincing.  Why?  Because he thinks like an economist.  He doesn’t just presume that people are acting optimally in some sense; he thinks that old-fashioned economic self-interest drives human behavior – and culture itself.  But does he go too far – and end up missing the big picture?  If you come to tomorrow’s Public Choice Seminar, you can ask him yourself.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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