Improving the economy is good for marriage

Published 10:27 am Wednesday, June 18, 2014

By Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Herald Guest Columnist

To paraphrase Mae West, I think marriage is a great institution, and I was ready for an institution nine years ago.

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My husband and I had college degrees, and our only debt was a small loan I had taken out to earn a teaching license in graduate school. To stay within our means, we limited our wedding budget to $6,000. There was nothing holding us back from tying the knot.

Many other couples, though, face tough hurdles to getting married. Minnesota legalized gay marriage last year, and interracial marriage is becoming more common, but one of the biggest barriers to matrimony in the U.S. has historically been, and still is, economics.

Marriage remains strong in the middle class and above, where delayed marriage and huge investments in a small number of children — born within marriage — is now the norm. At the same time, marriage in working class populations is in decline. As inequality has grown over the past 40 years, marriage has eroded as well.

Conservatives point to marriage as a protection against poverty, which it can be, but being in poverty to start with makes it harder to find a marriage partner and more difficult to stay married.

One problem is wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of jobs in 2010 required a high school education or less, with a median annual income of less than $35,000. One-quarter of all jobs, those that don’t require a high school education, paid a median salary of $20,000.

The jobs outlook for 2020 has a similar composition, and many workers will remain near the margins. They may be getting by, but they are one job loss or health problem away from financial crisis.

A second problem is unemployment. The unemployment rate is still over 6 percent, and for people ages 20-24, it’s 11 percent. Moderate unemployment rates still hurts those who can’t find jobs, and it depresses wages for those who do. Having a BA degree helps mitigate the risk of joblessness—those who graduated from college currently have a 3.2 percent unemployment rate.

Even for young people with college degrees and somewhat lower unemployment, marriage prospects may be diminished. Among public university graduates in 2011, the average debt of those who had to borrow money was $23,800. Student debt loads, exceeding $1 trillion in total, may be one of the factors behind rising age at first marriage and delayed child-bearing.

Depending on income or job outlooks, at what levels does college debt become a damper on finding a partner willing to pool resources?

Prison is another drag on marriage, especially in communities of color. One-third of black men will serve prison time at some point, and it’s a strike on their employment applications — and marriageability — for the rest of their lives.

Unemployment in black working class neighborhoods is about twice as high as in white neighborhoods, due in part to the decline of manufacturing and the rise of mass incarceration. It’s no surprise, then, that black women are substantially less likely to marry than white women.

We could give lip service to the virtues of marriage, but most people already value marriage. A focus on improving the economy for the working class would be a more effective way of advancing marriage. Individuals with financial stability seem to seek wedding bells on their own.

Making divorce harder is also not a solution to declining marriage rates. Those who have the most resources available to divorce are the least likely to do it: middle-class people are more likely to stay married than their less-educated, lower income counterparts. They are better able to weather financial setbacks and pay for counseling when needed.

On the other hand, economic stress is strongly correlated with divorce. Low-income parents are the most likely to get divorced, and it makes the mothers worse off than if they hadn’t married at all. It’s a reverse incentive for marriage.

Easing financial strains on individuals and families should be our primary target—lowering unemployment rates, promoting living wages, ending mass incarceration, easing student debt, and expanding affordable child care and health care.

Mae West once said, “Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache.” I used to think that was cynical; now I think she was right on. Let’s give love a fighting chance.