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How can parents ensure their children don’t marry outside their ethnicity?

October 20, 2011, 12:03 PM

A woman recently shared with me the secret to finding a husband. She told me to write a list of qualities that my ideal man would have and tape it to my fridge. That’s it. And while it sounds too simple to be effective, she assured me that it worked well for her. Just one week after putting her list on the fridge she opened her front door to find her ideal mate standing on her doorstep. A year later they married and are now happy as two peas in a pod.

The part of this find-a-husband program that I find hard to believe, beyond the idea that the only thing standing between me and a lifetime of marital bliss is the power of positive thought, is that it is possible to find a mate that has every single one of the qualities that would be on my list. And for that reason, I don’t have a list. (Plus, it seems to me that having one could rule out some pretty great guys who had more important qualities than those I would think to put on a list).

Evidence collected from online dating sites and speed-dating trials show that, particularly for women, two items on many singles’ lists are “Must be the same race as me” and “Must have my level of education or higher”.  Acknowledging that we often can’t have it all, new research  tries to answer the following question: If people face a trade-off between finding someone of their own education or finding someone of their own ethnicity, then what do they choose?

This research leads me to an entirely different question: If parents choose the education level of their children, can they then use that choice to impose their preference for a son/daughter-in-law of their own ethnicity?

Using US census data this research finds that for every additional year of education the probability that a person is married to someone who has the same ancestry as themselves decreases by 1.2% -- more educated people are more likely to marry outside of their ethnic group.

This isn’t surprising given that people who are better educated are more likely to live and work away from their own community.

When the authors of this paper control for the average level of education of the ethnic group in that community, however, this effect starts to disappear at higher levels of average education. In fact, for people in ethnic groups with very high average levels of education relative to the rest of the population there is a positive relationship between education and the tendency to marry someone of their own ethnicity.

Let me give you two examples from the paper:

The average Guatemalan in West Palm Beach has 7 fewer years of schooling than the rest of the population. For Guatemalans in that city, a 1-year increase in education leads to a more than 5 percentage point decrease in the probability that they will marry another person of Guatemalan ancestry. So, in that community more education increases the chance a person will marry outside of their ethnic group.

At the same time, the average Indian in Pittsburgh has 4 more years of education than the rest of the population.  For Indians in that city, a 1-year increase in education results in an almost 2 percentage point increase in the probability that they will marry another person of Indian ancestry. So, in that community more education decreases the chance a person will marry outside of their ethnic group.

They also find that people who immigrated to the US as teenagers are more likely to trade education off in favour of finding someone with their same ethnicity than those born in the US who prefer to find someone of their same education level over their same ethnicity.

One of the problems with this paper is that it assumes that decisions on education are made independently of decisions on inter-ethnic marriage. Consider, for example, the decision making of parents who have emigrated from India with their teenage daughter. If they prefer their daughter to marry someone who is of Indian ancestry, and they observe that in their community India men are educated and that educated men prefer educated wives, then surely that gives them an incentive to educate their daughter in order to improve her prospects for marrying a man of Indian ancestry.

The opposite might be true for parents in communities where people of their own ethnic background are less educated on average. Those people might under-invest in their child’s education purely for the purpose of keeping him / her in their community and married to a person of their own ethnicity.

Economists tend to assume that parents choose the education level of their child that maximizes their future earning potential. This line of reasoning rules out the possibility that parents, if they have a strong preference for intra-ethnic marriage, might choose a different level of education than one that will make the child materially better off in the future. If they do then this understanding might help explain why we observe such large differences in the level of parental investment in education between ethnic communities.

Delia Furtado  and Nikolaos Theodoropoulos (2011). “Interethnic marriage: a choice between ethnic and educational similarities.” Journal of Population Economics vol. 24: pp. 1257–1279. DOI 10.1007/s00148-010-0319-7


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