The Economics of Family Behavior
When a recent Business Insider article sought to explain “Why American Men are Getting Less Marriageable,” we cheered. The article relies on a recent study by three economists, MIT’s David Autor, along with David Dorn of Zurich and Gordon Hanson of San Diego, to observe that “economic forces are making [men] less appealing partners.”
That’s precisely what we claim in our book, Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family: we explain not just how a changing economy could produce less marriage, but also how economic changes could alter changing family norms. In writing the book, we were struck by how few examinations of the family established the causal interconnection. We see two factors as blocking more in-depth examinations and stalling the emergence of any consensus on the relationships between economic change and changing families.
The first is the insistence that economics cannot explain culture, as James Q. Wilson declared in his 2002 book, The Marriage Problem. The cultural explanations instead look at declining church attendance, greater acceptance of premarital sex, the dismantling of clearly defined gender roles, male idleness, and violence, and insist that these factors cannot be explained merely by changes in employment patterns. The result is a refusal, in some circles, to even consider looking at the ways that changing employment patterns might, in fact, encourage changing cultural norms about commitment, cohabitation, and marriage, and the dismissal or marginalization of sociologists who have attempted to do so.
The second reason is the role of neoclassical economics. The economists have ignored the sociologists, while paying undue attention to the work of Gary Becker, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work, and made it respectable for economists to study family behavior, in large part because he showed how family behavior could be the subject of formal economic modeling. To set up his equations, he claimed that marriage produced the largest overall gains when each spouse specialized in the home or the market, and it made sense for women to “specialize” in the home because of their role in childbirth and nursing. The result is that while economists do study the family, they have not produced compelling work that demonstrates why economic change might not just correlate with family change, but also explains the connections.
Both of these factors are finally beginning to change. There is a growing acceptance in almost all circles that the loss of secure, high-paid manufacturing jobs has something to do with family change. And a new generation of economists, including David Autor, have paid increasing attention to the interaction between economics and culture and have begun to examine the impact of economic changes on the intermediate factors that might influence cultural change.
In their new study, Autor and his co-authors set out to test the hypothesis of sociologist William Julius Wilson that decreasing blue-collar employment decreases the number of marriageable men. They found that it did. The areas that had seen declines in manufacturing jobs saw male employment and wages fall, and the gendered wage gap between men and women narrowed. In addition, they found that not only did the number of marriageable men decline, but the absolute number of men in the community fell, with male mortality rates and the incidence of risky behavior and substance abuse increasing. In short, their data seemed to vindicate Wilson’s predictions.
However, when they turned to the explanation for their findings—the connections that translate fewer secure jobs into less marriage—we were left dumbfounded. They simply recycled Gary Becker, concluding that economic change that undermines male income and employment reduces marriage and fertility because it leads to less “gender-based specialization.” Yet, even Becker’s adherents admit that his economic models produced predictions that proved spectacularly inaccurate, and we, among many others, observe that Becker’s theory of specialization is wrong on multiple levels.
First, women do not “specialize” in “the home.” In our view, Becker mistook women’s “dependence” for specialization. As rewarding as it is to stay home and care for children, minding toddlers while cooking and cleaning and doing an endless number of thankless chores is the work of a generalist. While some homemakers do make gourmet dinners or grow prize-winning gardens, there is little evidence of returns to scale—baking 10 batches of cookies are better than one—or that the ability to produce prize-winning gardens enhances marriageability. Instead, women’s so-called specialization in the home has historically been a product of need (someone has to do it) and curtailment of the alternatives (women haven’t had a whole lot of choice in the matter). Today, homemaking no longer requires the energies of half of the adult population, and women have joined men in specializing not in a generic market, but in a variety of market occupations that require greater education, experience, and a different model of marriage.
Second, Becker-based rationales have no answer to the findings of other economists who observe that, in defiance of his predictions, two career upper-middle-class couples have some of the lowest divorce rates, and the highest marriage rates. Instead, Becker, who did see it as an advantage to have someone else take care of his laundry, argued that as women entered the market (and thus became less “specialized” at home), the women who invested most in market labor would become the least likely to marry (unless they found good little “househusbands”), while the men most invested in the market would marry more specialized women, content to be homemakers.
Today, homemaking no longer requires the energies of half of the adult population, and women have joined men in specializing not in a generic market, but in a variety of market occupations that require greater education, experience, and a different model of marriage.
Sociologist Valerie Oppenheimer (whose theories we discuss in Marriage Markets) offered a much better explanation for what is actually happening. She posited that as women enjoyed greater labor market opportunities, two-career couples postponed marriage until the investments in their careers were complete, and then selected partners who shared their values and commitments. Assortative mating, in which like marries like, rather than differentiated gender roles, is the order of the day.
In this new order, it is not just that the successful marry the similarly successful, although that happens. It is also that the successful seek mates who share similar commitments to childbearing. Sometimes, this means couples who both agree that they do not want children. Among those with the most demanding jobs, it often results in one spouse taking time off to spend with the children when the couple realizes that both parents cannot stay in 60-hour-a-week jobs and do justice by their children. The stay-at-home spouse is still typically, though not always, the wife. Beyond those with high salaries, however, the more common arrangement involves trade-offs that juggle staying home with sick children, attending sports games, picking up children after school, and overseeing homework. These arrangements require a high degree of relationship flexibility and trust, but they are not “specialization in childrearing.” Sometimes, they do involve specialization in overseeing math homework versus coaching the soccer team. But it is the flexibility and trust, not the division between math and soccer, that determines the success of the arrangement. Becker has nothing to say about this.
The missing answer that neither Becker nor Autor provide almost certainly involves gender dynamics that have nothing to do with “specialization.” Instead, women’s increased income does make them pickier. In the old days, women could not support a family or even themselves. Most women did all those chores because they didn’t have much of a choice. Today, women who earn enough to support themselves enter into permanent commitments more carefully. The question that needs answering is why more elite men and women succeed in finding partners worthy of commitment, while those further down the socioeconomic ladder do not.
The answer is that at the top, couples trade off child care while (typically) neither parent does the housework. Below the top, few spouses can afford not to work, and if one partner does not carry his or her full weight in the relationship, whether in the home or the market, marriage becomes an expensive proposition. Economic uncertainty makes things worse, and this is where the Autor study gets it right. In the past, male breadwinners “earned” the right to have a family, including a homemaking spouse. Today, women are wary of a partner who expects them to work outside the home and pick up after them. And a partner with mounting health care expenses, erratic employment patterns, or even unpaid parking tickets threatens the emotional and financial resources the other partner sees as necessary to care for children. Without a degree of stability, security, and agreement on who cleans the toilets, marriage is likely to continue to be a bad deal for a large part of the population.