Bryan Caplan  

What Is the Male Marriage Premium?

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Married men make a lot more money than single men.  In the NLSY, married men make 44% extra, even after controlling for education, experience, IQ, race, and number of children.  How is this possible?

There are three competing economic explanations.  Each of the three may be partly true.

Explanation #1: Ability bias.  The causal effect of marriage on male income is smaller than it seems.  Even after adjusting for all the previously listed control variables, men with higher income are simply more likely to be married.  Maybe income makes it easier to attract a spouse; maybe Puritan attitudes lead to both income and marriage.  In a pure ability bias story, marriage has zero causal effect on earnings.

Explanation #2: Human capital.  Marriage causally increases male income by making men more productive workers.  Maybe marriage makes men work more hours; maybe it makes them work harder per hour; maybe it makes them control their tempers better; maybe all of these and more.  In a pure human capital story, marriage actually causes men to become 44% more productive.

Explanation #3: Signaling.  Marriage causally increases male income by changing employers' beliefs about worker productivity.  As long as married men happen to be more productive, and employers can't costlessly see their productivity, employers will rationally (and profitably!) pay married men more.  In a pure signaling story, marriage makes employers expect you to be 44% more productive, but has zero causal effect on productivity.

We can summarize these competing explanations with a table:


Causal Effect on Productivity

Causal Effect on Employers' Beliefs About Productivity

Causal Effect on Income

Ability Bias




Human Capital








Economists who study the male marriage premium usually conclude that much of it is causal.  This paper, for example uses shotgun weddings to isolate the causal effect of marriage on income, and finds:
Using the statistical experiment of premarital conception as a potentially exogenous cause of marriage, about 90% of the marriage premium remains after controlling for selection.
If shotgun weddings are genuinely exogenous, we can use them to measure the causal effect of marriage.  But as the preceding table indicates, there are two competing causal stories.  And they're very hard to empirically distinguish.  A shotgun marriage could causally increase your earnings by improving your attitude on the job.  But a shotgun marriage could just as easily causally increase your earnings by showing employers that you belong to a category of workers - married men - that typically have a good attitude.  "Selection," properly interpreted, refers to ability bias alone, not (ability bias and signaling).

If that's unclear, consider the case of tattoos.  A facial tattoo could causally reduce your income by giving you a bad attitude; but it could just as easily (and more plausibly) causally reduce your income by showing employers that you belong to a category of workers - guys with facial tattoos - that typically have a bad attitude.  A study of "shotgun tattoos" could tell you if the tattoo penalty were causal, but couldn't empirically distinguish the human capital from the signaling mechanisms.

So what is the male marriage premium?  I'm still deciding, but here's my tentative opinion.

1. The shotgun wedding paper notwithstanding, I think that about half of the marriage premium stems from ability bias.  Men who marry are just more conscientious, ambitious, and cooperative, and the NLSY lacks good measures of these traits.  This remains true even when men have a shotgun wedding; the stand-up guys go through with the wedding, while the slackers skulk away.

2. At least in the modern American economy, the signaling channel explains no more than 10% (not 10 percentage-points) of the male marriage premium.  My reasoning: When employers make hiring decisions, they heavily scrutinize educational credentials, but barely notice marital status.  I can easily believe that the signaling channel was far more important in the past; when almost every man marries, the failure to marry raises a red flag.  But nowadays?

My main doubt is that I know little about hiring in more traditional occupations and regions of the country.  Do employers in Kansas still raise their eyebrows when they see that a 35-year-old male applicant is single?  What about CBN?

3. If the male marriage premium is 50% ability bias, and less than 10% signaling, then human capital explains the rest: 40-50%.  Much of this effect probably reflects longer work hours and lower unemployment.  But it's quite plausible that marriage causally increases hourly productivity by 10%.

Is my breakdown correct?  If not, what's the correct breakdown between ability bias, human capital, and signaling?  Please show your work.

P.S. Coming soon: "What Is the Female Marriage Premium Penalty?"

COMMENTS (34 to date)
Pratyush writes:

It's also possible that the signalling explanation is an offshoot of employers' acceptance of the human capital explanation, ie, employers believe that 'marriage causally increases male income by making men more productive workers' (possibly supported by data too) leading them to pay higher wages to those who signal their higher productivity by means of their marital status.

rpl writes:

My hunch is that it's mostly ability bias.

I can't imagine that signaling is a significant effect here. Who puts their marital status on their resume? Furthermore, although marital status might come up during an interview, in my experience (on both sides of the interview process) it never has. The first indication my employer had that I am married was on my first day of work when I signed up for medical coverage for "employee and spouse".

I'm skeptical, though perhaps a little less so, of the human capital explanation as well. My productivity has actually dropped since I've gotten married, if only because I rarely work overtime anymore. When I was single I'd frequently stick around for an extra hour or two to work on some piece of the project that interested me. Now, Mrs. rpl complains when I'm late getting home, so I only stay late if I have a really pressing deadline. Perhaps I'm unusual in that respect, but I'd be surprised if married people weren't generally more protective of their free time, simply because they have more demands on it than single people do.

andy writes:

What about controlling number of children vs. childless families?

Mike writes:

I like all three of your explanations.

It would be difficult to tease out the weights of the three explanations from any data set that currently exists. I bet the marriage premium for men varies significantly between corporations, and even more between small companies. It can also vary wildly between different divisions of very large corporations. You can have lots of single men in a large division if that division is run by a single man.

But from my limited experience, it's the signal that carries the day. This is especially the case if it is known the man has a stay at home wife that takes care of children. So Andy asks a good question.

I've worked in several large organizations. One conversation I remember well is a manager of mine complaining about a new hire (from out of town) having decided to rent a house instead of buying a house. The manager thought that renting showed a lack of commitment.

I think the signal of conventional middle class expenses makes the "boss" think the married man is hungrier and will work harder.

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Daublin writes:

What about reverse causation? Men who have better jobs have an easier time getting married.

RPLong writes:

I'd like to supply another possible explanation (not at odds with any of the above), based on personal anecdotal experience.

Employers view married men as being more stable. A married man often wants to settle down and have a family, meaning a lower likelihood of moving away, which reduces marginal training costs. A married man also has more to lose if he gets fired because the assumption is that he's providing for the rest of his family. So he will try harder to please the boss.

This explanation is maybe a combination of "Ability Bias," (trying harder) "Human Capital," (less risky) and "Signalling" (generating beliefs about the previous two).

Just my humble opinion...

jh writes:
The first indication my employer had that I am married was on my first day of work when I signed up for medical coverage for "employee and spouse".

Which could then lead to ability bias for future pay raises and promotions. Your objection to the ability bias focuses more on the initial $ offer.

Collin Reid writes:

Several points:

1) It seems from the study that the number of children has a negative impact. Do you agree with that?

2) What are the effects of divorce here? The marriage premium is ability bias as successful marriage probably leads to successfully working with people.

3) Lastly, college educated people (along with marrying during 25 - 30 years) also divorce less and earn more money. It seems there is a giant circular function here. Go to college, date, start a career and then put off family until 27 years old is the key to success.

Randy writes:

Did the study determine how much more married men get to keep? Or just how much more they make? 'Cause I'd be willing to bet that married men don't get to keep even as much as single men. Which would also explain why they make more - because they have to.

Jacob writes:

Isn't it against the law to ask about a candidate's marital status in a job interview?

JoeFromSidney writes:

Speaking from my experience of being married (30 years), widowed (13 years) and remarried (11 years), I offer a possible additional explanation. Neither of my wives worked; my salary was always sufficient to maintain a home. They provided me with a lot of support. By taking care of the details of a household they made it possible for me to avoid dealing with them. They took the children to the doctor; they dealt with repairmen; they did the shopping. All of the things they did took a burden off me, making it possible for me to be more productive at work. I suggest this explanation also deserves some consideration.

Brian Clendinen writes:

I think you need a fourth category, likeability/charisma. I have found being single at times it is harder to relate or connect to co-workers who have families and kids even though I rather spend time with a family over single people any day. When it is harder to relate to people and you have less in common with your co-workers you likability factor falls.

I can’t remember who but there was some research on likeability/charisma verse competency in the work place. Likeability won day over competency of who people preferred to work with. I know of people I like but really are not great at their job but they keep their positions because everyone generally likes me. This results in giving one a leg up in promotions and pay increases.

Secondly, I would broaden the human capital explanation. I would include JoeFromSidnyes explination but also I know this from many couples as a common theme. Being married forces you to think less of yourself. Become a less selfish person results in you being a better worker which results in higher pay.

I also think it has net effect is on ambition. I know many people when they have kids it actually makes them more ambition and drive one to increase their pay. I think if I got married I would have a lot more drive to increase my pay so my wife would not have to work when we had kids.

Gareth writes:

Marriage seems like hard work to me

Bob Montgomery writes:

I'm pretty sure that marital status and similar questions are strictly forbidden by law in interviews, though if an employer cares it probably isn't too hard to figure out (e.g., look at the candidate's ring finger).

I've never been asked in an interview.

mutant_dog writes:

I made less when I was single than I did when I was married. Of course, I was younger then,and had acquired less job-related skill and/or seniority.

Were age, and time in service, controlled for ?

MikeP writes:

It probably falls under human capital, but two workers in a household means that each one's individual wage can have higher volatility. E.g., one can go without pay while building equity in a company, or one can spend time getting a degree.

Since wages generally rise, the higher beta means a higher rise over time for each of the two incomes.

Floccina writes:

How about the wife's contribution to the husband's productivity. She makes sure his tie is straight, she frees him from cooking and cleaning so that he can focus more on his job etc.

Floccina writes:

Wives reduce his going to bars so he does not come in late and hung over.

Methinks writes:

WRT explanation #3:

Couldn't one get a fairly good idea if it's employer perception or married men are actually more productive by comparing married and unmarried men in in professions where the man earns commissions or trades for a living?

Productivity for people in professions such as financial trading or sales should be pretty easy to compare as each employee has his own sales figures or P&L.

BZ writes:

But against the three above causal explanations is simple correlation. I.E. Productive people are also the type of people who get married. Productive people also make more money. Hence, to 1) None of my girlfriends have been impressed with my ability to program. :) 2) Married men seem far less productive than they were before getting married. They are less able to work late, and take days off for domestic concerns more often. 3) Signaling in this case is bunk -- as others have said, it's borderline illegal to even ask.

Joseph K writes:

I'm skeptical about the shotgun wedding study, mostly because I don't think it might effectively isolate the big contributing fact in ability bias. That factor, I believe, is interpersonal skills. The idea is that men who have better interpersonal skills get higher pay because they're better at charming superiors and coworkers and better at networking (finding better jobs and opportunities through acquaintances). These men with improved interpersonal skills are also better at charming women, which both means charming women into marriage and charming them into premarital sex (leading to unwanted pregnancy, leading to a shotgun wedding).

Also, it could be possible that shotgun marriages are simply not as common among men with low potential as among men with high potential. In other words, if a girl gets pregnant by a man that, by the estimation of the girl's parents, is a loser (i.e. limited earning potential) they might be more reluctant to force him to marry. But if the guy looks like a winner, the girl's parents might be eager to hitch their daughter onto a rising star.

Dave Everson writes:

The most obvious factor is not in any of these studies: families are expensive and the married man (at least in the traditional form) is strongly motivated to stay employed and pursue raises to pay for all of it. Before I was married I really wasn't all that concerned about raises and promotions. Now I'm intensely focused on maintaining and improving my income. I am no smarter or more able than I was when I was single and I doubt my employer cares about my marital status. But when I get up in the morning I have a strong motivation I did not have when single.

noiselull writes:

I believe Walter Block did some research for Fraser on the women's marriage penalty.

Brandon Reinhart writes:

I wouldn't lean too heavily on the resume argument against signaling. While an initial salary is set at hiring, most people receive salary changes over time.

So could we look at whether married men receive larger salary increases than single men?

If so, it might be hard to piece apart why they received the higher salary increase, but it would be a way that the signaling theory could still contribute.

blink writes:

What about "specialization"? It seems that women still do the bulk of housework, so married men have more free time to invest in their careers than do single men. Conversely, married women have less free time to invest in their careers than do single women. This explains both a marriage premium for men and penalty for women. It also makes a prediction: the magnitude of each effect has been declining over the past couple of decades.

BZ writes:

@blink - Bachelor men do not decrease their domestic chores when they get married, they increase them, tremendously.

Bill Drissel writes:

Maybe the need for more income leads men to select better-paying jobs and forego more pleasant but poorer-paying jobs.

Bill Drissel
Grand Prairie, TX

Mark Little writes:


I think you are right on on this one. Your breakdown is very plausible to me.

I can confirm that the signaling is a non-issue: hiring managers are prohibited from asking about marital status. I usually do not know the marital status of applicants I interview, unless it happens to be mentioned by the applicant.

One question on the human capital fraction--you base this on marriage, but what about children? Wives are very good for men, but I've heard children have an even larger motivating effect. Being childless I have no insight, but I'm guessing you would know.

rpl writes:
I wouldn't lean too heavily on the resume argument against signaling. While an initial salary is set at hiring, most people receive salary changes over time.
That's a fair point, but remember that in many industries it's possible, sometimes even common, to switch jobs every few years, and by assumption the prospective new employer won't know about the employee's marital status. Moreover, a single employee who feels he's getting sub-par raises relative to the married employees will be highly motivated to look for a new job. Finally, since employee turnover is expensive, employers will be motivated to minimize anything that might contribute to it.

That's all assuming that people generally agree on the signal that marital status is sending in the first place. One of the complaints often advanced in age discrimination cases is that employers prefer younger workers because they have fewer family commitments and can thus work longer hours. That would suggest a bias against married employees, rather than in favor of them.

curt doolittle writes:


I think that there is one other property of the male employee that is definitely part of compensation: the loyalty bias. In general, under duress - political and economic - men are perceived as more willing to sacrifice personal time for 'the team'. They are more likely to preserve political alliances in the face of conflict. Politics is an important part of all employment. Most businesses use the term 'loyalty' for this bias. But in my experience (which is pretty broad in the USA) the female bias to family is equal to the male bias toward the 'team'. And companies pay for it. Even if they don't test it they pay for it.

Secondly, I don't know what data you're using, but men dominate the extremes of the curve. How much of the variation is caused by the upper 10%, which is predominantly male? Education does not affect these biases so controlling for it is irrelevant.

Michael Benier writes:

Married people are older than unmarried people, and older people have gained more experience over that time.

I am very surprised that the original post didn't describe whether age was controlled for. Mutantdog and rpl mentioned this in the comments, but I don't think any other analysis is important until that issue is resolved. Education and number of kids will correlate with age, but if it isn't in the model this isn't a complete model.

John David Galt writes:

I see it as mostly the tattoo case in reverse.

Tattoos do not cause bad attitudes (at least unless somebody tattooed you against your will); but most of the people willing to be tattooed on the face also have bad attitudes (defined from a typical employer's point of view); thus, employers are justified in assuming that you do, too.

Similarly, (voluntary) marriage can seldom cause a man to become cooperative, patient, and/or hard-working; but if you have those qualities, you are much more likely than other men (1) to find a woman willing to marry you and (2) to be willing to make the trade-off of marriage's costs for its benefits.

If my explanation is correct, then I would predict (not having seen the data) that the marriage "bonus or penalty" for women is much smaller than that for men, especially in large cities and "blue" states. Reasons: (1) Women having children out of wedlock (or having them and then divorcing) are no longer seen as shameful except in what's left of the Bible Belt, and (2) the law now puts women so much in control of their home lives (whether married or just living with someone) that they simply no longer have to incur significant costs from either form of relationship. (A woman can have you thrown out of your home for life -- but keep it and your income -- for no cause whatsoever, merely by saying to police "I'm afraid of him." Thank VAWA. Then there are the laws relating to child molestation, where an accusation is as good as a conviction.)

Bud writes:

Could this be another factor to consider? People tend to put off getting married until they have gotten a bit further in their career and have higher incomes.

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