Stop Calling Marriage a 'Luxury Good'

If you want to talk about economic inequality in matrimony, don't just look at the weddings. Look at the divorces.
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For college graduates, marriage is a promise you make late—and tend to keep. For non-college-graduates, it's a promise you make early—and tend to break.

That is the very simplest I can break down this massive, and massively interesting, survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on marriage trends by education and race. There have been a lot of articles this year comparing marriage to a "luxury good"—something the rich do and the poor avoid. It's not that simple.

Let's begin with a graph (of course) that illustrates the first paragraph of this article, perfectly. You're looking at marriages rates for Americans born around 1960, surveyed by the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, up until 2010. Focus on the the crossing lines. College-educated men and women marry later—age 26.5 versus 22.7 for non-grads—but marry a little more frequently, and divorce much less.

So why is it misleading to call marriage a "luxury good"? A luxury good is something the rich buy, and the poor don't. But the majority of practically every major demographic gets married before their 40s. That's not a luxury good. That's just ... a good.

If marriage were truly a luxury good, you'd expect marriage rates to be wildly different by education attainment, since education levels strongly predict income. But they don't. At all levels of education attainment (which I'm using as a rough proxy for income), marriage is pretty common. This is not what a luxury good looks like ...

But there are two inequality stories when it comes to marriage. The first is race. The second is divorce.

Even though there is no marriage gap by education, there is a huge marriage gap between blacks and the rest of the population surveyed by BLS. Blacks marry later (and less often) than whites or Hispanics, as the graph below shows clearly.

In fact, blacks are three-times more likely to be unmarried by the age of 46 than the rest of the population. If they divorce, they are also less likely to get married again. (The fact that the market for marriage is hugely different by race, but not by education attainment, is fascinating to me, but I don't have a clear explanation for it now.)

The second inequality story is about divorce. Divorce doesn't look like a luxury good; it looks like an inferior good. The richer you are, the less likely you are to do it. Divorce rates by age 46 are twice as high among high-school dropouts than college grads.

The point isn't that a 30-percent divorce rate among bachelor's degree holders is low. Divorce is common. But it's much, much more common for drop-outs and graduates of high school, only.

This same point is made more starkly (albeit less colorfully) in new study of divorce trends from Demographic Research. Watch the rising black bars and falling white bars. The story you're following is that divorce rates among dropouts are going up, up, up, while divorce for bachelor's holders have fallen to half-century lows. Today, more than half of the marriages by men and women with less than a high school diploma end in divorce, according to BLS.

Marriage sorta-kinda looks like a luxury good. But divorce definitely looks like the opposite: an inferior good, with rising demand among the lowest-educated (and lowest earners) and falling demand among the rich. 

Let's throw one more variable into the mix: Age. Younger marriages are more likely to end in divorce, no matter how long you spend at school. Among marriages beginning between 15 and 22, nearly 60 percent ended in divorce (including nearly 50 percent among college-educated couples). "People who marry later are more likely than younger couples to stay married," the researchers found.

***

That's a lot of marriage data in one bite, but this isn't just matrimony trivia. Too many single-parent households, which cluster among the least-educated, are a blight on both adult lives and child development. The children of rich, college educated parents aren't just lucky because their parents are rich and college-educated. They're lucky because they have parents, plural, in the household, who can divide work and child-care. "Young people from less-privileged homes are more likely to graduate from college and earn more if raised by two married parents," Brad Wilcox wrote for The Atlantic just yesterday. Marriage rates aren't just pushed around by larger economic forces. They push back.
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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