Bryan Caplan  

9 Short Observations about the Marriage Premium

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In the past, I've faulted economists for ignoring the marriage premium (here, here, and here for starters).  Last week, when Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry and Megan McArdle joined my fault-finding expedition, Justin Wolfers pushed back on Twitter:
There's no credible evidence justifying the claim that the marriage wage premium is causal.
I replied:
Justin, you don't sound very Bayesian. [and linked to this post on economists' selective agnosticism].
Justin's response:
The Bayesian reading is to confess to a prior that there's strong selection into marriage.
After reading this, reasons for Justin to rethink his position kept popping into my head.  Here are the top nine:

1. No credible evidence?  How about the mere fact that the marriage premium (for men) and marriage penalty (for women) persists after controlling for age, education, race, and a long list of other confounding variables?

2. "Strong selection" hardly implies zero treatment effect - and the observed male marriage premium is so large (often over 40%) that the absolute treatment effect would still be large even if 75% of the difference were due to selection.

3. After controlling for observables, do married and unmarried men really seem radically different?  What unmeasured pre-existing traits of married men could conceivably lead them to earn 40% more than unmarried men?

4. Following Heckman's lead, education economists increasingly emphasize the importance of non-cognitive skills (conscientiousness, ambition, organization, etc.).  Isn't it plausible that marriage would causally raise men's non-cognitive skill via expectations, praise, nagging, devotion, etc.?

5. It's easy to see the appeal of the selection story: Married people have many traits in common: willingness to commit, to defer gratification, to conform to social norms.  Why then, though, do married men earn a large premium, while married women earn a modest penalty?  Shouldn't favorable selection enhance women's earnings, too?

6. If you say, "Women de-emphasize their careers after they marry," you're appealing to a treatment effect.  And if you can believe that women de-emphasize their careers as a result of marriage, why can't you believe that men emphasize their careers as a result of marriage?

7. Kids substantially reduce female earnings.  Few doubt that this effect is causal: Kids don't just take time; they change priorities.  If you can believe that kids change their moms' labor market behavior, why can't you believe that spouses change each others' labor market behavior?

8. If marriage is just a piece of paper, how can it possibly cause higher or lower earnings?  Because marriage is also a state of mind.  Some people (like Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson) can enter this state of mind by sheer act of will.  But most people need formal social recognition to effect this transformation.

9. Social psychologists have produced a lot of experimental evidence that merely identifying as a member of a group can have a large effect on behavior; see e.g. the famous Robbers Cave Experiment.  Why is it so hard to believe that identifying as "Husband of X" or "Wife of Y" can have such an effect?  Or simply identifying as "a Husband" or "a Wife"?

Are any of these arguments - or all of them together - good enough to convince a skeptic like Justin that a substantial part of the marriage premium is causal?  Probably not.  But my arguments are good enough to convince reasonable skeptics that this issue deserves far more empirical attention from economists of Justin's caliber.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (34 to date)
jlv writes:

Nice story. What's your identification strategy?

Jared writes:

I'm surprised that neither party has linked to this study:

I understand that the identification isn't perfect, but it's strictly better than *no* causal evidence, is it not?

There is also this somewhat (but only slightly) more recent review of the evidence (haven't read, just linkin'):

Bryan Willman writes:

It's very important to distinguish between the normal pre-selection and normal treatment effects, and exotic special cases. There are surely some men (me) for whom marriage would be a disaster (as would be being married to them.) There are others for whom the "treatment" is unlikely to offset their serious limitations in the workplace.

But the whole debate strikes me as a little off-kilter. So having close friends is good for you? Having a spouse is good for you? What am I supposed to do, run a craig's list ad "wanted, close friends and a spouse?"

College has the property that it's something that you buy - like a house or a car. It doesn't involve the same kind of complicated search for a counterparty.

Demosthenes writes:

The marriage premium/penalty can be rationalized in a search framework with household bargaining and I'm not aware of anyone who has tried to do so. On-the-job search drives wage growth in the late career, the married couple chooses to intensify his and demphasize her search, in turn leading to the premium/penalty. Free research topic, right there. I should write this down.

ivvenalis writes:

@Bryan Willman

Think about it in aggregate. More people in general could be getting married but *something* is discouraging them from doing so--we know this based on comparing the present to the past. If marriage is a good thing, then that something (incentive structure) should be changed/discarded/reverted and more people will get married.

Jason Collins writes:
After controlling for observables, do married and unmarried men really seem radically different? What unmeasured pre-existing traits of married men could conceivably lead them to earn 40% more than unmarried men?

This missing variable is income itself (or the woman's assessment of future income). Whether a woman is seeking resources or uses a male's income as a signal for a bunch of other unobservables, you'll always get a large marriage premium if you fail to capture her income preferences.

Jason Collins writes:

Following from my comment above on the preference for income, I wrote a post on this point early last year.

8 writes:

Men provide for themselves. If they have a family, "themselves" is expanded to include a wife and children. Child support and alimony are negatively viewed by single men, yet the same thing is happily provided inside of marriage.

Thomas Boyle writes:

Years ago we heard that homeownership was positively associated with all sorts of socially desirable outcomes. Now we know that public policy to promote homeownership had some pretty catastrophic outcomes, that fell most heavily on those people the policy was supposed to help.

We've heard that college attendance was positively associated with all sorts of socially desirable outcomes. After decades of public policy to promote college attendance, we are seeing some pretty catastrophic outcomes, that fall most heavily on those people the policy was supposed to help.

In the name of all that's good and holy, don't push for any more public policy favoring marriage. If it has good outcomes, people can respond to that incentive. It's the basic premise of economics. When public policy distorts the natural benefits, the overall outcomes get worse - and, we note, the bad outcomes tend to fall most heavily on those who can least afford it.

Thomas Boyle writes:

Loh, Eng Seng. (1996) "Productivity Differences and the Marriage Wage Premium for White Males". Journal of Human Resources 31:566-589

Key findings:
1. The association between marriage and men's wages was sensitive to different types of observed controls.
2. The association was small and insignificant when wives' education and work experience were included in the regression model.

This does rather point to selection bias: future wages are predicted by the type of women these men can attract.

Thomas Boyle writes:

Hewitt, et al. (2002). "Marriage and Money: The Impact of Marriage on Men's and Women's Earnings". Discussion Paper DP-007, University of Queensland

Key finding: the earnings premium for high-wage men is lower.

Implication - unclear, but it may be consistent with the idea of marriage enabling specialization. That explanation would work better for low-income men. High-income men can - and do - specialize by paying for laundry, home care, etc., whether they marry or not. Low-income men cannot explicitly outsource their at-home chores: their options are to minimise home care (a bias seen in low-income single men), or marry and outsource that work to a wife.

But, it's also consistent with marriage as a motivational factor. In essence, high income men are self-motivating and are more likely to already be doing as well as they could, while there is a greater chance that lower-income men could do more, with motivation.

Thomas Boyle writes:

Korenman and Neumark (1992). "Does Marriage Really Make Men More Productive?" Journal of Human Resources 27:233-255

They conducted longitudinal, rather than cross-sectional studies. They found that:
1. Controls for fixed effects reduced, but did not eliminate the association between marriage and wages.
2. Wage growth was especially strong in the first few years of marriage (although this is to be expected, as people getting married choose their timing!)
3. Performance evaluation data from employers showed higher ratings for married men, and ratings (rather than marital status) was associated with earnings.

Thomas Boyle writes:

Loughran and Zissimopoulos (2003): "Are There Gains to Delaying Marriage? The Effect of Age at First Marriage on Career Development and Wages". RAND Corporation.

Early marriage was associated with lower wages for men and women. Delays in marriage were associated with higher wages. However, those who married later, had higher incomes than those who never married.

Bergstrom and Schoeni (1996) found the same thing and interpreted the results as meaning that people who delay marriage to learn about the productivity of potential spouses have better outcomes.

Thomas Boyle writes:

I could keep citing these, but:
1. Studies mostly show a positive correlation between marriage and income for men (large number of studies), not so much for women (multiple studies)
2. It's more true for lower-income men than higher-income men (a few studies), but not lower-income men who marry early (a few studies).
3. There's evidence that the effect vanishes when you control for the woman's education and premarital income (a few studies). It also largely goes away if you control for siblings' income (a few studies).
3. The effect is getting smaller over time (several studies).

These are interesting socioeconomic observations.

Let's not use them as the basis for mass-scale public policy with behavior-distorting incentives.

RPLong writes:

Here's what I think: You either believe in the value of marriage, or you don't. I think "both sides" (and I REALLY hate that phrase) have lots of a posteriori evidence for their respective positions, but in the end it comes down to whether or not you already believe in marriage.

You can point to all the medical research that demonstrates how much measurably healthier religious people are than non-religious people, but this research is meaningless and flawed, in the mind of an avowed atheist.

Medical and economic research all points to unequivocal benefits of marriage, but it is not enough to convince people who don't believe in the institution of marriage. But I'm a happily married man. I see the benefits of my marriage, and they are many. I love being married. These benefits are as real and tangible for me as they can possibly be. Whether they fit into someone else's economic model means nothing to me. It's real because it's real to me.

Brian Clendinen writes:

@Thomas Boyle

So why is there no premium for cohabitating couples?

Also do you know the studies you stated if they took into consideration the higher divorce rates when people marry younger or did these studies only look at people who stayed married to one spouse the whole study period?

Divorce is the largest income killer in Modern America so the difference in early life marriages might be 100% due to higher rates.

Also how do you dismiss all the collaborating evidence of the advantages of marriage in other areas such out outcomes of kids, happiness, satisfaction (including sexual).

It would appear that if there are other social areas that marriage has a huge premium for, logically a productivity(I assume higher wages means higher productivity) premium in marriage is most likely, if there is collaborating evidence, which there is.

On Education the only reason there is a gap between races is because the marriage rate is so low for Blacks and Hispanics compared to Asians and whites. Granted Widowed and Divorced families don’t have nearly the same size performance gaps with kids however children with married parents still have better outcomes. It appears this is true from what I have read in most other social aspects of marriage.

I know we are just talking about the wage premium aspect of marriage however, I just think there is an overwhelming preponderance of evidence across so many areas of social science I don’t know how any could not see that society is much better off with extremely high rates of marriage.

Anon writes:

While I generally believe there is something causal from marriage that's different from stable, long-term, cohabitating relationships (perhaps because the later don't actually exist), I have a hard time reconciling the marriage premium with certain observations.

Single folk just seem to work harder. In the office, the married guy is the one trying to get out of here by 7pm. The married woman, by 5:30. The single guy has nothing important to do on Friday night and will happily pull the all-nighter for the client, blowing off his plans to go drinking with friends. The single person has a focus and ambition that the married person doesn't seem to have. This may be an elite-working-environment bias. Probably it doesn't show up when you work at the Gap, or the widget factory. But I think it underlies a lot of blog commentors feelings.

Unrelated to the above, Jason Collins' blog post was thoughtful.

Thomas Boyle writes:

Brian Clendinen,

There is a male wage premium for cohabiting couples, although it is smaller than the married premium. You could view this as the partial benefit of being married (a true marriage benefit) or that women will live with, but not marry men who have only partially-fulfilled potential (a selection bias). There will also be timing effects, as couples wait to see how the man's career prospects are shaping up, before marrying (think of grad students, apprentices, etc.).

IIRC the early-marriage penalty applied to marriages where the man was under 20 and the woman under 25 (odd ages, I'd have expected the reverse). They were looking at wages while married. It seems to me that this is a selection bias: in our world, early marriage reflects either low potential for further education, or a tendency toward poor/impulsive life choices. However, one of the studies suggested it was attributable to better mate selection when couples wait longer (the "loser" guys wind up single, not married).

I'm not dismissing happiness in marriage. I would hope that people choose marriage based on a reasonably well-informed expectation that it will make them happier.

Higher productivity in men is clearly associated with marriage. There is a question about whether marriage causes productivity, or the reverse: it appears both are true. It is reasonable to assume that for men who like being married (RPLong, for example), at least some productivity gains would result from motivational and support benefits. Basically, you work for the things you want - and for most men, a woman's companionship is something to work for (c.f., Paycheck, J. Take This Job and Shove It, CBS, 1977). Of course, much the same would be true of any costly good. In other words, it would essentially be secondary gains from trade (when Joe and Jill trade, it also helps others they will later trade with).

I wouldn't debate that a society may be much better off with high rates of marriage. That doesn't tell us that society should promote marriage. Consider that the very wealthiest societies feature high rates of ownership of luxury cars, yachts, and private jets, but promoting widespread ownership of these would be a public policy mistake. My point here is not that marriage is like a business jet; it is just to be careful about what you assume.

Thomas Boyle writes:

There are other public policy parallels to consider, here.

Consider, say, homosexuality. On a lot of metrics, US homosexuals in the 1950s were badly-off: they had psychological and social problems that led to a high rate of adverse life outcomes. Worse, however, there were public policies (including threats of jail time) that prevented, or at least strongly inhibited them from pursuing the course that would have made them happiest.

Today, we increasingly view those public policies as having been inappropriate. And, as a result, homosexuals are living better lives. Heck, now they're even getting married!

Tolerance of people's free and non-intrusive choices is a good starting point for public policy. Often, it's also the best ending point for it.

Emily writes:

@Thomas Boyle:
Thanks for looking at research on this.

I would argue that one major difference between homosexuality and unmarried-ness for these purposes is the elasticity of supply. Threatening a gay man with jail time (or public disgrace) can't make him not gay, it can just make him unhappy in addition to being gay. Whether people marry is probably much more responsive to prices (in the form of laws, social approval or disapproval, etc.)

That said, I don't see anything about public policy here, just about whether economists should talk about this stuff more.

Hadur writes:


Anecdotally, the hardest-working people in my office are not single men, but unhappily married men who use their job to escape their home life.

FredR writes:

"On a lot of metrics, US homosexuals in the 1950s were badly-off: they had psychological and social problems that led to a high rate of adverse life outcomes.Worse, however, there were public policies (including threats of jail time) that prevented, or at least strongly inhibited them from pursuing the course that would have made them happiest.

Today, we increasingly view those public policies as having been inappropriate. And, as a result, homosexuals are living better lives."

Do you know of any sources that quantify this improvement?

David S writes:

A question: is there a marriage premium for homosexual marriages?

I'd guess it would at least be less - since I think a lot of the marriage premium is based on males and females reinforcing each other's weak areas. But it might shed some light on how much is selection bias (which would be presumably unchanged) and how much is causal (which could be very different).

Emily writes:

"Is there a ‘marriage premium’ for gay men?":
They looked at cohabitation, not marriage, and there wasn't when they controlled for observable characteristics. (Also, this is just for men.) There have been no papers on the subject that actually looked at marriage (or at least, no papers that google scholar says have cited this.)

Also possibly of interest, although not directly on this topic, "Sexual orientation and household composition in the labor market"

Leigh Fermor writes:

Seems to me it basically comes down to #6, but I would view that as selection or revealed preference as opposed to treatment. Single men have the option to hop in and out of jobs, if they want to work part of the year and travel part of the year, or otherwise trade in and out of leisure and work, whether on a daily, monthly or yearly timeframe. Married men are committed in all sorts of ways, including to providing, which necessarily drives up their earnings relative to uncommitted workers. And there are plenty of men for whom work is not a preference, and who will work only to the minimum necessary. Marriage and family just raises the minimum, both in requisite dollars, and continuous time.

Nathan Smith writes:

re: "Isn't it plausible that marriage would causally raise men's non-cognitive skill via expectations, praise, nagging, devotion, etc.?"

Yes, but more simply: specialization and division of labor. Someone else cooking, cleaning, mailing, paying bills, means you have more time and energy for work.

John writes:

Bryan, clearly you're simply pointing to a case of discrimination and we need a law that the check box for "married" from being allowed anywhere (except your tax forms).

It's clearly an example of institutional gay bashing and doubly hurtful to non-gay bachelors.

Of course there is the interesting question of why any such premium exists since economic logic suggests that more rents can be extracted from those supporting a family than those supporting only themselves.

I suppose that has to be mirrored against incentive for putting in the best effort each day - where the logic is reversed.

In the end I wonder if it's truly an economic questions as opposed to a sociological one.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Thomas Boyle -- Your first posting was brilliant. The later ones were useful too, but the first one was the best. Even if there is causality from marriage to increased male earnings, we would be crazy to encourage it with public policy.

After reading all the comments, I think there were two responses that explained the correlation pretty well: 1) That there is a selection bias in that women prefer to marry men with higher earnings, and 2) that stay-at-home wives (which is still a substantial minority, I believe), enable men to concentrate more on increasing their earnings. The second one may follow Bryan's belief that there is causality at work, but this same causality may also be causing the decrease in women's income. So #2 may result in no net gain.

Al Pal writes:

College helps men earn more money, but men can live without college. Men cannot live without women and so men get married. Women however cost men money so men work harder. When you work harder you make more money. Women want more sh*t paid for by man, so men work harder again and make more money. Men spend so much time working to sometimes avoid their nagging wives that they make even more money.

I’m not sure getting married creates a premium for men, it's just women might motivate men to work more...

Re, studies that show men's marriage premium varies with wives' education/income.

This could be explained by either a. the increase in expectations that higher income/potential income producing women have of their mates and/or b. the direct input of wives on their husband's career (such that more capable wives are more helpfulthan less capable wives).

It could be a proxy for causal inputs of marriage, in other words.

We suggested this explanation in The Case for Marriage, fyi.

Butter writes:

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Tom writes:

don't push for any more public policy favoring marriage. If it has good outcomes, people can respond to that incentive.

The problem is that current public policy in welfare punishes the poor who get married, and rewards the poor who have kids and don't marry.

Should policies for the poor have incentives to do behaviors that have good outcomes, or should the policies reduce the pain of bad outcomes from questionable choices?

This is a similar issue to gov't support for college, since most poor don't go to college.
"College is it's own reward" seems like enough reason to have no gov't support, or at least limited, for going to college.

Certainly the ability "buy" college tuition is a different choice of lifestyle than to find a great spouse to marry. Yet the numerous plaudits for college benefits relative to marriage benefits means there is too little recognition of the benefits.

With the college debt issues for so many now, there is even more reason for public persons to state that the best way for poor folk to help themselves is to get married and stay married.

Anthony writes:

Responding to the Toms, while we've encouraged college and home-ownership with bad results, public policy towards marriage has been in the opposite direction over the same (or longer) periods. Divorce has become much easier, and more punishing to the man. Welfare programs reduce the incentive of low-potential women to get or stay married, and increased housing costs have made childraising more expensive, delaying and reducing marriage.

But the question that needs to be answered is what has been the trend in the marriage premium over time (40 years or more), and how does that track with the rate of marriage? If the marriage premium is caused by marriage, rather than by sorting, it should be about as large before 1970 as it is today; if it's a selection effect, it should be much larger today, as those men who wouldn't benefit from marriage are less likely to get married.

Beckett Cantley writes:

Perhaps an explanation? Pretty nails marriage as pure signaling.

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