Family Inequality

Who are you gonna marry? That one big assumption marriage promotion gets totally wrong

First preamble, then new analysis.

One critique of the marriage promotion movement is that it ignores the problem of available spouses, especially for Black women. Joanna Pepin and I addressed this with an analysis of marriage markets in this paper. White women ages 20-45, who are more than twice as likely to marry as Black women, live in metro areas with an average of 118 unmarried White men per 100 unmarried White women. Black women, on the other hand, face markets with only 78 single men per 100 single women. This is one reason for the difference in marriage rates; given very low rates of intermarriage, especially for Black women, some women essentially can’t marry.

But surely some people are still passing up potential marriages, or so the marriage promoters would have us believe, and in so doing they undermine their own futures and those of their children. Even if you can get past the sex ratio problem, you still have the issue of the benefits of marriage. Of course married people, and their kids, are better off on average. (There are great methodological lessons to be learned from their big lie use of this fact.) But who gets those benefits? The intellectual water-carriers of the movement, principally Brad Wilcox and his co-authors, always describe the benefits of increasing marriage as if the next marriage to occur will provide the same benefits as the average existing marriage. I wrote about how this wrong in Enduring Bonds:

The idea that the “benefits” of marriage—that is, the observed association between marriage and nonpoverty—would accrue to single mothers if they “simply” married their current partners is bonkers. The notion of a “marriage market” is not perfect, but there is something like a marriage queue that arranges people from most likely to least likely to marry. When you say, “Married people are better off than single people,” a big part of what you’re observing is that, on average, the richer, healthier, better-at-relationships people are at the front of that queue, more likely to marry and then to display what look like the benefits of marriage. Those at the back of the queue, who are more (if not totally) “unmarriageable,” clearly aren’t going to have those highly beneficial marriages if they “simply” marry the closest person.

In fact, I assume this problem has gotten worse as marriage has become more selective, as “it’s increasingly the most well off who are getting and staying married,” and those who aren’t marrying “may not have the assets that lead to marriage benefits: skills, wealth, social networks, and so on.”

Note on race

People who promote marriage don’t like to talk about race, but if it weren’t for race — and racism — they would never have gotten as far as they have in selling their agenda. They use supposedly race-neutral language to talk about fatherhood and a “culture of marriage” and “sustainably escaping poverty,” in ways that are all highly relevant to Black families and racial disparities. If you think the problem of marriage is that poor people are not marrying enough, you should not avoid the fact that you’re talking about race. Black women, especially mothers, are much less likely to be married than most other groups of women, even at the same level of income or education (last I checked Black college graduates were 5-times more likely than White college graduates to be single when they had a baby). So, don’t avoid that this is about race, own it  — the demographic facts and political machinations in this area are all highly interwoven with race. I do this analysis, like the paper Joanna and I did, separately for Black and White women, because that’s the main faultline in this area. The code I share below is adaptable to use with other groups as well.

Data illustration

In this data exercise I try to operationalize something like that marriage market queue, to show that women who are least likely to marry are also least likely to enter an economically beneficial marriage if they did marry. See how you like this, and let me know what you think. Or take the data and code and come up with a different way of doing it.

The logic is to take a sample of never-married women, and women who just got married in the last year, and predict membership in the latter group. This generates a predicted probability of marrying for each woman, and it means I can look at the never-married women and see which among them are more or less likely to marry in a given year. For example, based on the models below, I would estimate that a Black woman under age 25, with less than a BA degree, who had a job with less-than-average earnings, has a 0.4% probability of marrying in one year. On the other hand, if she were age 25+, with a BA degree and above-average earnings, her chance of marrying rises to 3.5% per year. (Round numbers.)*

Next, I look at the husbands of women who married men in the year prior to the survey, and I assign them economic scores on an 11-point scale (this is totally arbitrary): up to four points for education, up to four points for earnings, and up to three points for employment level (weeks and hours worked in the previous year). So, a woman whose husband has a high school education, earned $30,000 last year, and worked full-time, year-round, would have 7 points.

Finally, I show the relationship between the odds of marriage for women who didn’t get married and the economic score of the men they would have married if they did.

There are two descriptive conclusions, which I assumed I would find: (1) women who get married marry men with better economic scores than the women who don’t get married would if they did get married; and, (2) the greater the odds of marriage, the better the economic prospects of the man they would marry. The substantive conclusion from this is that marriage promotion, if it could get more people to marry, would pull from the women on the lower rungs of marriage probability, so those new marriages would be less economically beneficial than the average marriage, and the use of married people’s characteristics to project the benefits of marriage for unmarried people is wrong. Like I said, I already believed this, so this is a way of confirming it or showing the extent to which it fits my expectations. (Or, I could be wrong.)

Here are the details.

I use the 2012-2016 five-year American Community Survey data from (for larger sample). The sample is women ages 18-44, not living in group quarters, single-race Black or White, non-Hispanic, and US-born. I further limited the sample to those who never married, and those who are married for the first time in the previous 12 months. That condition — just married — is the dependent variable in a model predicting odds of first marriage. (Women with female spouses or partners are excluded, too.) The variables used to predict marriage are age (and its square), education, earnings in the previous year (logged), and having no earnings in the previous year (these women are most likely to marry), disability status, metro area residence, and state dummy variables. It’s a simple model, not trying for statistical efficiency but rather the best prediction of marriage odds. Then I use the same set of variables, limiting the analysis to just-married women, to predict their husbands’ economic scores. The regression models are in a table at the end.**

Figure 1 shows how the prediction models assign marriage probabilities. White women have much higher odds of marrying, and those who married have higher odds than those who didn’t, which is reassuring. In particular, a large proportion of never-married Black women are predicted to have very low odds of marrying (click to enlarge).

Figure 2 shows the distribution of husbands’ economic scores for Black and White women who married and those who didn’t. The women who didn’t marry have lower predicted husband scores, with the model giving them husbands with a mode of about 7.0 for Whites and 6.5 for Blacks (click to enlarge).

Finally, the last figure includes only never-married women. It shows the relationship between predicted marriage probability and predicted husband score, using median splines. So, for example, the average unmarried Black woman has a marriage probability of about 1.7%. Figure 3 shows that her predicted husband would have a median score of about 6.4. So he could be a full-time, full-year worker with a high school education, earning $19,000 per year, which would not be enough to lift her and one child out of poverty. The average never-married White woman has a predicted marriage probability of 5.1%, and her imaginary husband has a score of about 7.4 (e.g., a similar husband, but earning $25,000 per year).

Figure 3 implies  what I thought was obvious at the beginning: the further down the marriage market queue you go, the worse the economic prospects of the men they would marry, if there were men for them to marry (whom they wanted to marry, and who wanted to marry them).

I will now be holding my breath while marriage promotion activists develop a more sensible set of assumptions for their assessment of the benefits of the promoted marriages they assure us they will be able to conjure if only we give them a few billion more dollars.

I’m posting the data and code used on the Open Science Framework, here. Please feel free to work with it and let me know what you come up with!

* This looks pretty similar to what Dohoon Lee did in this paper, including his figures, and since I was on his dissertation committee, and read his paper, which has similar figures, I credit him with this idea — I should have remembered earlier.

** Here are the regression models used to (1) predict marriage, and then (2) predict husband’s economic scores.