Bryan Caplan  

Being Single Is a Luxury

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I'm baffled by people who blame declining marriage rates on poverty.  Why?  Because being single is more expensive than being married.  Picture two singles living separately.  If they marry, they sharply cut their total housing costs.  They cut the total cost of furniture, appliances, fuel, and health insurance.  Even groceries get cheaper: think CostCo.

These savings are especially blatant when your income is low.  Even the official poverty line acknowledges them.  The Poverty Threshold for a household with one adult is $11,139; the Poverty Threshold for a household with two adults is $14,218.  When two individuals at the poverty line maintain separate households, they're effectively spending 2*$11,139-$14,218=$8,060 a year to stay single.

But wait, there's more.  Marriage doesn't just cut expenses.  It raises couples' income.  In the NLSY, married men earn about 40% more than comparable single men; married women earn about 10% less than comparable single women.  From a couples' point of view, that's a big net bonus.  And much of this bonus seems to be causal.

If you're rich, admittedly, you have to consider the marriage tax.  But weighed against all the financial benefits of marriage, it's usually only modest drawback.

Yes, you can capture some these benefits simply by cohabitating.  But hardly all.  And cohabitation is far less stable than marriage.  Long-term joint investments - like buying a house - are a lot more likely to blow up in your face.  And while there may be some male cohabitation premium, it's smaller than the marriage premium.

If being single is so expensive, why are the poor far less likely to get married and stay married?  I'm sure you could come up with a stilted neoclassical explanation.  But this is yet another case where behavioral economics and personality psychology have a better story.  Namely: Some people are extremely impulsive and short-sighted.  If you're one of them, you tend to mess up your life in every way.  You don't invest in your career, and you don't invest in your relationships.  You take advantage of your boss and co-workers, and you take advantage of your romantic partners.  You refuse to swallow your pride - to admit that the best job and the best spouse you can get, though far from ideal, are much better than nothing.  Your behavior feels good at the time.  But in the long-run people see you for what you are, and you end up poor and alone.

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COMMENTS (45 to date)
Jason Collins writes:

Low-income, low-status males are not attractive. Many (most) are not voluntarily single.

For low income women, there are trade-offs between resources and genetic quality.

Income is not the objective.

david writes:

Do you really think the instrument offered by Ginther and Zavodny is plausibly exogenous of income-earning ability? Given that a endogenous choice over abortion, contraception, unprotected sex etc., are all possible?

david writes:

See, riding the anti-neoclassical behaviorist horse is one thing in expressive voting theory, where the individual cost is close to zero anyway. But here the contention is of large individual and nearly immediate costs, where the neoclassical case for incentives is strongest. Are you really sure you want to pitch your argumentative tent here?

Mercer writes:

If most American women would be happy with a cheap wedding and living in an apartment it would make sense for most low income people to marry. This is what I think most women expect in a marriage:

"Marriage, we heard time and again, ought to be reserved for those couples who've acquired the symbols of working-class respectability—a mortgage on a modest rowhouse, a reliable car, a savings account and enough money left over to host a 'decent' wedding."

If a man can't afford a house and a "decent" wedding most women are not interested.

nazgulnarsil writes:

Men rank women along a bell curve. Women rank 80% of males as below average. Source: OK Cupid.

Martin writes:

Women are like Wi-Fi. They see all the available devices, but connect only to the strongest one.

The social status of men below the poverty line is so low that there are always socially more valuable men, which women the same distance below the poverty line prefer but will at the same time have a hard time convincing to invest in a long-term relationship. Hence, a lot of poor single men and women who ignore each other.

John S writes:

Many of the comments here point out that the relative incentives here aren't financial. Women prefer high-status men; poor men aren't usually high status. Poor guys aren't getting married, but that makes sense given their low average status.

All valid points, but poor guys used to get married. The question isn't "why don't poor people marry?" but "why did poor people stop getting married?" Yes, incomes have stagnated for poor people of the population, but would that alone cause poor men's status to fall so much lower than it already was? Especially since incomes have probably stagnated for a very large proportion of Americans? Seems like a stretch.

This suggests that slow income growth isn't the primary cause of the changes Murray observes. Of course, this still leaves us lacking a hypothesis as to why culture has changed.

I find the following story pretty plausible: cheap, effective birth control (first available in the early 60's) and small increases in cultural acceptance of divorce and single-motherhood caused a snowball effect that has dramatically changed the behavior of low-income men and women.

In the past, if a poor woman wanted kids, her only option was to get married, probably to a low-status male. If she didn't want kids, obviously rare for the time, her only (safe) option was to remain unmarried and to never have sex.

Today, if a poor woman wants kids, she can have a high-status man's child and raise it herself, with very little condemnation from her peers or family. If she doesn't want kids, she can date and have sex with high-status men with little risk.

So for poor men, signals that "I'm a hard-working family man" become worthless or even counterproductive (since signaling commitment may also signal a lack of options), and signals that "I'm high-status despite my low income" (game) become much more valuable. Finally, the choice to withdraw totally from the sexual marketplace (through video games, TV, etc.) also becomes much more attractive.

Curt Doolittle writes:

@John s:

I think that there is a simpler answer: the cost of housing and goods minus child support is low enough that a woman on one income can have her children then extract child support from an absent 'beta' father, and have her nest without caring for a 'beta' male. The financially enslaved father is then economically worthless to other women, and remains single. We then are stuck with two inefficient households.

Women only want men if they can get one they respect - a situational alpha. The vast majority of women 'settle' for men. Their family is their children. The husband is a resource.

Monogamy was promoted by the religious authorities in order to reduce the number of troublesome single men. It was also impossible for a woman to have children without a husband under agrarianism. We no longer live in agrarian production. Goods are cheap enough that a woman can have her children on her own, and women are clearly making that choice -- beta men are 'unwanted' as other than resource providers.

I've spent quite a bit of time on this problem and that's the answer I keep coming back to.


Jack writes:

What about average vs. marginal? For your average couple, indeed getting married leads to higher incomes (it's endogenous, sure, but part of it is causal, c'mon). But for the unmarried couple on the margin, not so sure.

Also, doesn't the $8000 singles-premium also imply there is a penalty for getting married? If I am single, poor mother and I get married to a man who contributes very little income, I might lose my poverty safety net and gain only a few 1000$, so I am poorer overall. Why get married? Maybe there is a Queueing theory story to tell: If potential mates I encounter are sequentially drawn from a Normal distribution (Bell Curve), it won't take too long before I meet someone good enough, and the expected gain from delaying marriage is low. But if my potential mates are drawn from a Lognormal with most of the probability mass near zero, most of my encounters are with low-quality mates, and I prefer to risk it and wait for the diamond in the rough. (Whom I probably never meet.)

Anecdotally, among PhD students, those who were married at some point during the PhD program completed their studies faster and got better job placements, on average, than did the singles. Selection bias, probably? (Commitment in relationships, commitment to work?) However, the top placement was a single.

JRo writes:

In the US military, it pays to be married. Single? You get free medical care. Married with four children? Free medical care for all!

Some aspects of military pay depend on whether one is "with dependents" or "without dependents." For example, the monthly basic allowance for housing for an E-6 (say a 1st Class Petty Officer in the Navy) working in DC is $1866 if he's single and $2487 if he's married. That works out to an extra $7452 per year.

And guess which one of those guys is more likely to have duty on Valentine's Day!

David J writes:

I think the reason fewer poor people are marrying is because they see examples of tremendous wealth every day and know that if they "settle" for marrying another poor person, they're just that much less likely to achieve the fabulous wealth they see on TV and in the movies. Such wealth didn't exist a few generations ago, and it was certainly not as well publicized. The perfect has become the enemy of the good when it comes to attaining wealth.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

This seems very, very wrong Bryan.

You're obviously right about a marriage premium, but how does that invalidate Krugman’s point? Assume 50/50 bargaining in marriage, $1,000 for a single person, and a $100 marriage premium. Your point seems to be “Krugman is making no sense because $1,000 ".

But marriage has costs. It ties you to another person which can be very risky financially and psychologically. You give up autonomy. It's hard work (worth it in my experience, but still work). If we monetize the costs of marriage, say at $1,500, then it's obvious that Krugman (and you as well) are right.

It's true that $1,000

Pointing out the marriage premium doesn't counter a single word in Paul's post. The economy is a complex system – causality can work both ways.

I have more thoughts here:

Brian writes:

I thought studies had shown divorce was considered the largest destruction of wealth out there. So if one has a 50% chance of getting divorced how much wealth is destroyed getting divorced verses wealth created while married?
I think that this is a major if not the largest reason to why the wealthiest have such a low divorce rate. It is really hard to stay in the top income bracket if you are getting divorced because of how much wealth is destroyed or loss.

Possiblly I think a large factor for the marriage premium is because being married forces you to think about someone else and become a less selfish person. That in-turn makes you a better person so people like you better, and it also causes you to become a better worker because you think about others more. Therefore you make more money because you are more likeable and a more productive person.

stephen writes:

In short, farmers make more money and are more stable than foragers.

Peter Twieg writes:

I don't think the alpa/beta male arguments really fly here - there are a couple stylized facts in this argument that it can't account for:

1) It doesn't explain the difference in marriage rates between upper-income and lower-income individuals.

2) It doesn't explain why marriage rates are often the lowest among groups where women face the worst dating possibilities.

John Thacker writes:

@Daniel Kuehn:

Sorry, I don't understand your argument. The costs of marriage you allude to are psychological. But the monetary value of psychological costs are going to vary depending one's income, as is the monetary cost of the risks involved with marriage. You have a lot more to lose in a divorce if you have a lot more-- that's why we associate prenuptial agreements with the very rich. Similarly, it's the middle class and rich who are willing to pay therapists a lot of money.

I think that the costs of marriage you point out would increase with wealth. If you're already wealthy, then you should both worry more about losing money in a divorce, and you should be willing to pay more for psychological health. On the other hand, the poor should be more likely to worry about living day-to-day, and less worried about divorce (losing wealth that they don't have sometime in the future.) Wouldn't your argument then say that the rich should be less likely to marry than the poor? Yet the opposite is true.

John Thacker writes:

I'm surprised that this point is so controversial. I thought it was obviously known that throughout history people entered into bad marriages for wealth and avoided divorce for the same (look at divorce statistics during recessions), and that the monetary incentives towards marriage are strongest for the poor.

It isn't even necessarily a bad thing if welfare plus increased opportunities for women allow them to avoid bad marriages, is it?

I would think that the far more controversial point has to do with declining religiosity amongst the poor. That should challenge some atheists' beliefs as well.

Lee Kelly writes:

I live in a relatively poor part of rural Alabama. My job involves serving many lower class people, and my wife works at a nearby mental health organisation. In my opinion, Bryan is basically right, at least 90 percent of the time. Frankly, considering many of these women's boyfriends and husbands, it is well worth $8,000 to keep them out of the house.

The welfare state inhibits poorer men competing on the reliable companion and provider dimension of mate selection (things they're usually not naturally good at, but they'd need to cultivate to some extent). Instead, men just compete on the alpha male front; when women only need men to make babies (or Baby-daddies), they choose mates like they're having a one-night stand--hypermasculine, aggressive, bad-boys. Since that is almost the only dimension that poorer men (particularly in black communities, for some reason) compete for mates, those are the qualities they strive to develop. This, obviously, has lots of bad consequences for such communities.

That's what I reckon, anyway.

Calvin writes:

First Bryan cites a paper showing that marriage benefit is causal and not simply selective. Then Bryan uses behavioral economics to concoct an explanation that people who don't get married are likely to be impulsive, short-sighted people who are selected against. Isn't this contradictory? If the marriage bonus is not selective, as the paper finds, then how would behavioral economics explain it this way?

jc writes:

mm, I think being single and living with others of the same sex mitigates a lot of these expenses-groceries, living costs, furniture, etc.

Jason Malloy writes:

Dr. Caplan and his audience seem to assume that the decline in marriage is due to the preferences of women, and the declining romantic appeal of lower class males.

I would actually predict something like the opposite: now that women can have sex and babies outside of marriage without meaningful social stigma, lower class men no longer have an incentive to invest in wives and mothers; "why buy the cow when the milk is for free?"

This actually gives lower class males a mating market advantage compared to upper class men who are still hamstrung by a critical social milieu. (The relatives, friends, and employers of educated men are not going to look the other way while they knock up and abandon women like moronic thugs).

How do you think larger numbers of lower class men are able to drop out of the labor force? Because they are subsidized by the women they have sex with. Why do lower class women subsidize lower class men? Because they are at a mating market disadvantage; it represents their declining leverage in coaxing males into supportive, long-term relationships.

Becky Hargrove writes:

The daily judge shows on TV are filled with examples of poor people who thought they too could live the American Dream just by combining households and living like the middle class. All the judicial commonsense in the world will not help if we do not do a better job of creating valid legal structures that low income people can actually reach to survive and live amongst one another in respect and dignity.

Michael Carroll writes:

"Because being single is more expensive than being married."

Well not quite. This is true if we are comparing married and single people who ***form households.***

Being a single adult in a pre-existing household is certainly less expensive than being married.

I suspect you are probably mixing up persons and households.

PrometheeFeu writes:

Given the high percentage of couples with marital trouble who report lack of money as being their problem, I wouldn't be surprised that poverty would wreck one's chance of staying married or cohabitating with someone long enough to get married in the first place.

Also, finding a partner for marriage and being married takes lots of social skills. Those social skills are probably quite similar to those one needs to get a good job. As a result, I wouldn't be surprised to have lack of certain social skills result in both a failure to marry/remain married and a failure to get a high-income job.

I see to recall that currently 1 in 8 black men under 30 is in jail. That significantly reduces the number of feasible matches within the black community. (There are strong racial preferences in marital matches)

Also, there are the crime statistics which should rationally discourage marriage. If your wife/husband is growing pot in the basement, you're risking asset forfeiture, not to mention police officers crashing through your front door guns blazing. If there is a high chance that your marriage partner will commit a crime, you might rationally decide to stay away in order to avoid the spill-over effects in your life when they inevitably get caught.

Seth writes:

I agree with your last paragraph. I'd add that increases in wealth redistribution and social programs from the 50s and 60s that turned negative feedbacks against impulsive behavior, which use to cause some of the impulsive to "grow up", into positive feedbacks for such behavior, didn't help matters.

Incentives, after all, do matter.

Salamander writes:

This is something I always wondered about. I grew up hearing old folks like my aunts and grandparents -- who remembered TRULY hard times during the Depression -- say things like "Two can live as cheaply as one." And when I reached young adulthood, it certainly made sense to my husband and I to get married at a young age and thus afford to rent a decent apartment vs. living with lots of roommates or renting a squalorous studio in a bad neighborhood, which is what we would have done if we were single. It also made much more economic sense to pool our income and save up so that when the babies came along, I could stay home with them. Mind you, we both came from lower-middle-class, educated families and had strong religious reasons for not cohabitating.

Anyway, since then I have made the acquaintance of quite a few actual poor people, and this is what I have noticed:

- There is not much of a cultural emphasis on marriage. As one friend explained, "Growing up, we didn't know any married people. You just had a boyfriend, and then eventuallty you would have a baby. The first wedding I ever went to was my own." In other words, there are probably plenty of poor people who *would* get married if the idea occurred to them, but it is not something that is really on their radar these days.

- If you are receiving welfare or subsidized housing, you do stand to lose those benefits by legally linking yourself to someone with a steady job. Given the sketchy employment prospects and behavior of many poor men -- either due to working in seasonal employment where they frequently get laid off when work is slow, or due to their own behavior, or a combination thereof -- the government money probably seems like a safer bet to poor women and they are less likely to consider giving up their benefits.

- Poor-but-steadily-working people also often claim they cannot afford to get married. These are the ones who would presumably benefit from married and would not lose any sources of income. I suspect these are the people Bryan is talking about. In my experience, when they say they cannot afford to get married, they actually mean they cannot afford a nice wedding. Apparently simple weddings are not an option these days.

Ritwik writes:

From John Mansfield, over at Marginal Revolution.

“Oh, Sally, will you marry me?” “Bob, you haven’t worked in three months, and your car was repossessed last week.” “That’s true, but marriage wouldn’t make my finances worse, and could even improve them.” “Hmmm. Try Marginal Revolution. Maybe someone there will marry you.”

Randy writes:

"You refuse to swallow your pride - to admit that the best job and the best spouse you can get, though far from ideal, are much better than nothing. Your behavior feels good at the time. But in the long-run people see you for what you are, and you end up poor and alone."

Working for a tyrant has a very high cost. Being married to a tyrant has a very high cost. I think you should just leave it with your title - Being Single is a Luxury. It absolutely is - and worth every penny.

Glen Smith writes:

This is another example of seeing causality where none exists. Marriage doesn't cause higher income. At best, one could argue that the reverse is true but evidence really only says that those who are in the cohort that marries and stays married also tend to be in the high income cohort (probably has something to do with time preferences). Further, the cost of divorce tends to be higher than the costs of staying married as you move up the wealth ladder. Delay of an action such as divorce often ends up showing that such an action was not a good choice. Also, human beings that best rationalize their state does highly correlate to doing well.

seebs writes:

The "end up poor and alone" thing appeals strongly to our sense of narrative and causality, but I think it rather misses a key point:

Stress is bad for relationships. Being poor is stressful.

What this means is that these are not necessarily people who, if you started them in a lower-stress environment, would make all these bad choices. They may be people who are making bad choices because they are badly stressed already.

It's attractive to blame the poor for their suffering, but it is important to remember that stress makes people temporarily "impulsive and short-sighted".

In short, if we put you in those circumstances for a year or two (long enough to burn through your emotional reserves), you'd probably be no better; I'm sure I wouldn't.

J Mann writes:

On reflection, the most charitable interpretation of Krugman's point isn't just that the poor might be getting married in as smaller numbers because they are more poor than they used to be.

It's closer to: the poor might be getting married in smaller numbers because poor men are making less money relative to poor women, particularly when income assistance is taken into account.

Eli writes:

What about kids? Being married greatly increases the potential of having kids, who parents spend a lot of money on.

While Bryan Caplan asserts that parenting is a lot less expensive than it has to be, feeding, clothing, and housing another human being is still expensive. And although Bryan is probably right that kids should be cheaper than most parents think, the fact is that they aren't in practice, because most parents don't know that they don't need so spend so much on their children.

The selfish reasons to have kids argument for why kids aren't very expensive seems kind of like saying that coffee isn't that expensive, because I know a place down the street where you can get a $.49 large cup.

In a nutshell:
Being married usually results in having more children. Having more children usually results in paying a lot for them (even when its too much).

Chris Bowyer writes:
I thought studies had shown divorce was considered the largest destruction of wealth out there.
Divorce: the biggest malinvestment.
Peter H writes:

Some days, I'm really happy to be a gay man.

Evan writes:

@Curt Dolittle

I think that there is a simpler answer: the cost of housing and goods minus child support is low enough that a woman on one income can have her children then extract child support from an absent 'beta' father, and have her nest without caring for a 'beta' male. The financially enslaved father is then economically worthless to other women, and remains single. We then are stuck with two inefficient households.

I am getting rather fed up with these PUA-inspired theories which imply, if not outright state, that women are consciously behaving to maximize their genetic interest. No human consciously behaves that way. No human ever has. Women do not think "Hey, if I become a single mother I can steal resources from a man to maintain the gene-carrying robots [children] I am manufacturing without having to waste any resources caring for a person who is unrelated to me genetically." No one thinks like that.

It is true that some of the behaviors people engage in vaguely resemble behaving in their genetic interest. But that is not the reason people do them. Evolution programmed us to engage in these behaviors for their own sake without realizing they are in our genetic interest, or even caring about our genetic interest.

Women do not make the kind of cold calculations you are implying they do. Evolution made calculations (metaphorically speaking) that certain behaviors enhanced genetic interest and then programmed people execute those behaviors, (such as "stop being attracted to a low status man and separate from him") without knowing why.

So why do PUAs and the Roissysphere act like women are consciously making the cold, malicious calculations that evolution did, instead of simply executing adaptations that happen to make them act similar to the way a cold calculator did? Because they are folk Marxists who think women are the oppressors and beta males are the oppressed. Therefore, any statement that lowers the status of women is good, regardless of whether or not it has any scientific grounding at all.

I think Bryan is mostly on the money on this. People behave irresponsibly and hence are not marriage material. There may be some evolutionary reasons for behaving this way. But that does not mean you should blame someone morally for the calculations made by an abstract statistical process like evolution. You certainly shouldn't insult women by claiming they are making a conscious effort to enslave men for their own nefarious purposes.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I just looked at Ginther and Zavodny and I must find myself unimpressed by their variables. Men and women select both in who they have sexual relations with and who they marry. While there surely are some people whose criteria end with the presence of a pulse, I doubt that is the common case.

Furthermore, there may be some correlation between income and your reaction to an unexpected pregnancy. While you may gain a lot from marriage, having kids is very expensive. (Especially if you didn't want any in the first place) So I would expect more lower-income people to choose to have an abortion or potentially abandon the mother.

I'm not saying lower-income people are immoral. I'm simply pointing out that they have incentives against becoming parents.

Boyle writes:

The Ginther/Zavodny paper you link to doesn't show causality at all. It's no more valid than the idea that home ownership causes financial success - a notion that drove some pretty bad public policy in the last 20 years.
Consider the college students who marry shortly before (or after) graduation. College student income: low. Income a year later: high. You get post hoc, but not propter hoc. It doesn't take many of those to skew averages pretty hard.
But, Ginther/Zavodny say, the study looked at shotgun weddings, and that eliminates selection. Seriously? Come on, how many of us have not seen a friend's girlfriend turn up "oops" at a suspiciously opportune time? How many of us have not had women confess that they "weren't sure" if they took their pill - but haven't told their boyfriend that? Shotgun weddings among educated couples (who tend to have strong earnings trajectories around the time of marriate, skewing the averages) aren't even close to random: they routinely feature a woman with reduced diligence about birth control, and a man who won't abandon her (despite having a pretty strong suspicion about what she's done).
All that study shows is that the returns to marriageability do not depend strongly on a man's desire to marry at a particular time.

Boyle writes:

P.S. While being single may appear to be a luxury because it appears expensive, it apparently isn't a luxure if you're poor. Marriage is.
How do we know that? Because the rich marry, and the poor don't.
The ready analogy is that the poor also don't have bank accounts, and instead use "expensive" check-cashing services.
If you're relatively rich, bank accounts appear cheaper than check cashing services, and marriage looks cheaper than being single.
But if you're poor, check cashing services are cheaper. I suspect this is true of being single, too.

vikingvista writes:

Direction of causality changes everything.
More poverty causes less marriage? Probably not.
Less marriage causes more poverty? Probably.

Peter writes:

Also one thing people are missing here is plenty of unmarried singles are:

A: Not single but living together with long time partners and splitting resources as you would in a married relationship

B: Single but with a roomate splitting cost.

A shared two bedroom condo ($4K a month) is a cost savings over a one bedroom in the same complex ($3K a month). When you both have active life or live on your computer, it's not like the shared areas (i.e. living room) get much use.

I also think this is pretty obvious given the shortage of one bedroom moderate income units which suggests a lack of demand.

vikingvista writes:

" I'm not saying lower-income people are immoral. I'm simply pointing out that they have incentives against becoming parents."

And unhappy people have an incentive to seek pleasure. Is there a potentiating effect?

Edgar Swank writes:

A couple may be able to live together more economically than two singles, but this goes out the window once they start to have children. In the USA culture, these are complete parasites for at least 18 years.

pjay writes:

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Mari writes:

Has anyone read "Promises I Can Keep" which studied and asked poor unmarried mothers why they didn't wait for marriage before getting pregnant.
There are a lot of things going on with the women and the men in their lives. One being for the guy is there is more temptation to cheat, do stupid, and be bad husband material. For the gal, though it sounds counterintuative, getting pregnant forces her to get her life together.

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