Arnold Kling  

Marriage, Income, Cause, and Effect

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The Washington Post reports,

As marriage with children becomes an exception rather than the norm, social scientists say it is also becoming the self-selected province of the college-educated and the affluent. The working class and the poor, meanwhile, increasingly steer away from marriage, while living together and bearing children out of wedlock.

Regarding marriage and income class, which is the cause and which is the effect? If you're a bleeding-heart liberal, it is economic stress that leads to single-parenthood.

"The culture is shifting, and marriage has almost become a luxury item, one that only the well educated and well paid are interested in," said Isabel V. Sawhill, an expert on marriage and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

However, the example in the story seems to reflect causality running in the other direction.

When the Fitzhenrys married (he was 42, she was 32), it changed the way they managed their finances, which Jim said had been in a "death spiral" when they were single. Michelle quickly paid off $20,000 in credit-card debt. Jim cut up most of his credit cards and got rid of a BMW convertible.

Among its many benefits, marriage raises the earnings of men and motivates them to work more hours. It also reduces by two-thirds the likelihood that a family will live in poverty, researchers have learned.

Or, could there be a third factor that causes both marital stability and high income?

"Although we didn't plan it that way and we certainly didn't marry for money, it turned out that a byproduct of the values we both care about has been financial success," said Michelle, who places the couple's annual earnings between $350,000 and $400,000, much of which is invested conservatively.

I think that Michelle's social science is probably better than that of either the liberal or conservative researchers. Start with the right set of values (or characteristics such as self-discipline and self-control), and you are more likely to end up like the Fitzhenrys.

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CATEGORIES: Income Distribution

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Sean writes:

I'd believe it - single men spend a lot of money on things that make them look attractive to the opposite sex. If you're married you no longer have to worry about this and suddenly that Honda Accord doesn't seem so lame after all.

David writes:

Are newspaper reporters under no obligation to examine cause and effect?

Buzzcut writes:

Could an academic write a paper saying that marriage is the cause of affluence, and poverty is a function of bad behavior, nothing more?

I think that political correctness precludes it.

Nathan Smith writes:

My experience was the opposite of the Fitzhenrys. For the whole of my two-year marriage our finances were a mess. When my salary went up, they actually got worse, because my wife spent more money, and we went into thousands of dollars of credit card debt. Then she left me, and I almost immediately paid off the credit card debt and started saving money.

I guess my experience is atypical but why?

Christina writes:

Nathan: Your experience wasn't atypical. Indeed, I imagine it is quite typical among divorcees.

Here's the difference between you and your ex-wife and the Fitzhenrys: they work as a team toward common goals, whereas your wife had her own agenda, which entailed her spending your money unilaterally.

Your mistake was not asking the right questions prior to marriage that would have exposed this character flaw of hers.

Heather writes:

I think the problem with this way of looking at things is the marriage is not a cause or effect of wealth, but rather a byproduct. The simple act of marriage will not automatically make a person wealthy, but two people working toward the same goal and reaching a consensus on that goal are more likely to reach it. In many cases, a good marriage will allow a couple to balance out the weaknesses of the other, but the reason this happens is that both have committed to the same goals. If a couple marries without mutual agreement on their goals, they will not be any richer than a single person. Similarly, I expect a couple that has agreed upon goals that is not married is just as likely to reach those goals as the similar married couple. The only reason marriage would change the way people manage their money as a couple is that the written commitment of the marriage psychologically makes them reevaluate their current situation.

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