The future of marriage and income inequality

The Pew Research Center today released a new report by Wendy Wang and Kim Parker on the record number of Americans who have never been married. One-fifth of all Americans over the age of 25 in 2012 had never been married. In 1960, that group was only 9 percent of those over 25. The cause for this shift is most likely due to decisions by many young adults to defer marriage as well as to a lack of employed men, as other articles about the report have noted. But the differences in the trend by education level can give us an insight into the possible future of U.S. income inequality.

The report shows starkly that the pool of available and employed men in the United States has been on the decline for decades. In 1960, there were 139 employed and never-married men for every 100 never-married women. By 2012, there were only 91 such men for every 100 never-married women. This reduction in marriage-eligible men, however, varies quite a bit by education level. For Americans with a college degree, the ratio is 88 employed and never-married men per 100 women. The ratio is very similar for those with some college or a two-year degree, 86 men per 100 women. But there’s actually a surplus of men with a high school degree or less. For that group, the ratio is 108 employed and never-married men per 100 women.

These ratios mean that never-married women are likely to marry men who have less education. With a relative under-supply of available college-educated men, a college-educated woman may marry a man with just a high school degree. This process would lead to a reduction in something social scientists refer to as assortative mating, or the process of similar men and women marrying each other. If highly educated workers, who tend to be high income, marry each other while less-educated workers marry each other, then that trend will amplify the trends in income inequality.

Research finds that assortative mating has increased income inequality quite a bit in the United States. But research by Lasse Eika of Statistics Norway, Magne Mogstad of the University of Chicago, and Basit Zafar of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York finds that assortative mating has increased among the less educated, but not the highly educated. This trend fits into idea that highly educated women are finding partners with less education on marriage market because the supply of eligible men is too low. Some share of these women will have to look to lower-educated men who are relatively more available.

So differences in education attainment appear to have a very short-term and mechanical effect on household income inequality than the longer-term effects we often hear about.

September 24, 2014



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