That economists’ paper about gender inequality, marriage and divorce

I was planning to write a note about this paper by economists, “Gender identity and relative income within households,” which got a lot of play two weeks ago. But I forgot about it until today, and then noticed that in the New York Times Catherine Rampbell, economics writer, dropped it in her story on the Pew Report about women as breadwinners. In the cautionary part of the article, Rampbell mentioned “A new working paper by economists” that showed:

…perhaps even more tellingly, couples in which the wife earns more report less satisfaction with their marriage and higher rates of divorce.

Maybe reporters like what’s new, or maybe it was just on her radar because she reads Freakonomics, the Economist or the Financial Times, which all uncritically wrote up the paper when it came out. But it’s really a shame in a story about current trends to cite a “new” paper which (for this part of its analysis) used data more than 20 years old. divorce-cartoon

Here is a brief critique I was going to give when the paper came out. Just taking two lines from the abstract, I offer a few suggestions:

1. Couple matching

The distribution of the share of household income earned by the wife exhibits a sharp cliff at 0.5, which suggests that a couple is less willing to match if her income exceeds his.

Suggestion: It’s not a good idea to use the relative incomes within couples years after they got married to discuss how relative income affects mate choice decisions. People move, change jobs, have children, etc., in the first few years after they get married. You need to look at income before marriage to study mate selection.

2. Divorce

Couples where the wife earns more than the husband are less satisfied with their marriage and are more likely to divorce.

This part of the analysis uses data from Waves 1 & 2 of the National Survey of Families and Households NSFH), which were collected in 1987-88 and 1992-94. I don’t always insist that everyone use data from this minute, but at some point — around two decades — a study becomes historical. That judgment depends on the context and the question being asked. In this case, relative earnings of spouses (as we just saw in the Pew report) has seen an order-of-magnitude change over this period. And the paper is about norms! That is, the authors speculate that couples with high-earning wives divorce because they are outside the mainstream. So if, 20-25 years later, they’re not outside the mainstream anymore, the paper might not be salient.

Secondly, this is well-worn territory, and the specific hypothesis offered here has been tested and found wanting in several award winning papers using more thorough measures and testing competing hypotheses. (The NSFH, one of the most productive data collection efforts ever, maintained a bibliography up to 2004, which lists 180 papers under the category “union quality and stability.”) For those interested in the fuller story, I recommend these:

…[M]easures of marital commitment and satisfaction are better predictors of marital dissolution than measures of economic independence. This strongly suggests that the independence effect found in prior research, which did not include controls for marital quality, may have been measuring the role of wives’ economic independence in exiting bad marriages, not in exiting all marriages.

We find that when men are not employed, either husbands or wives are more likely to leave. When wives report better than average marital satisfaction, their employment affects neither their nor their husbands’ exits. However, when wives report below average marital satisfaction, their employment makes it more likely that they will leave.

…shifting into full-time employment is more likely for unhappily married than for happily married wives. … [C]ontrary to frequently invoked social and economic theories, wives’ full-time employment is associated with greater marital stability.

This provides a followup to a previous study using the same data which found…

…clear evidence that, at the individual level, women’s employment does not destabilize happy marriages but increases the risk of disruption in unhappy marriages.

The reason these marital satisfaction controls matter so much is that how happy women are within marriage affects their employment, and therefore their earnings. So what looks like an earnings effect is often an unhappy-marriage effect. Careful sequencing of longitudinal data (which these papers do) is required to sort this out.

I only mention the awards because I was shocked (shocked!) to see these major sociology papers in top journals, using the same dataset and asking the same questions, published over a decade, which have been cited hundreds of times in the academic literature, go unnoticed in this economics working paper, which — not-yet published, not-yet peer reviewed — would be quoted all over the place.

9 thoughts on “That economists’ paper about gender inequality, marriage and divorce

  1. I’m sure it goes deeper than simple access, but … when we interviewed David Brooks for Contexts several years ago, he told us that it was much easier for folks at the Times and elsewhere to access economics journals and working papers than sociology journals and working papers. This doesn’t mean we should send all our journals to journalists (which the ASA does already, to some extent), but that our work should be online and available if and when they need it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, econ’s working paper system is much more vigorous and visible. I think there’s also an attitude/gestalt thing, where sociologists admit lots of doubts and describe caveats in detail while economists often just say “this is the effect.” It’s easier for people outside both disciplines to see and feel confident in the economists’ conclusions.


      1. First time visiting — sharp content all over the pages here. I won’t say who is correct, because I haven’t read enough to know, but economists say the same thing you’ve said about sociologists, about themselves (that they’re the careful caveat-nodders and fact checkers), and that sociologists are the gung-ho “this is the effect” -ers. Sanctimoniousness about scientific standards, and professional xenophobia, seem to drive more of these debates than careful literature review.

        Had a nice lunch today with a non-market political theorist about his neoliberalism encyclopedia entry. I agree that economics has had a disproportionate influence on government agencies. But I think sociologists and other social scientists systematically discount their own intellectual impact when they start comparing themselves to economists. The social construction of _______ is as well known a concept as psychological sub-conscious. Marxian and C. W. Millian false consciousness is a stupidly common explanation for behavior. People talk freely and fluidly about social classes in a way they never would have 100 years ago. It goes on. There is evidence of an enormous sociological imagination everywhere.

        So the old-hat about how economists get all the attention because they’re on the side of the legitimators and rich guys is a little trite, I think.


  2. The two key factors, which cannot be disentangled, seem to be (a) the role of the man as provider, either by virtue of his own employment or though substitution by the women’s employment and (b) the woman’s happiness. Relationships end more often when he is unemployed or when she is unhappy or, progressively, unhappy+employed.

    An interesting comparison would be the effect on relationship longevity of his or her employment status cross-referenced to *his* happiness. If there is no correlation to divorce, the pattern would seem to be that the man has to simultaneously support the woman financially and emotionally or the relationship falls apart.


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