Marriage in Crisis

The U.S. Census Bureau has released a report this week which finds that the marriage rate, for people between the ages of 25 and 34, is down once again.

The U.S. Census Bureau has released a report this week which finds that the marriage rate, for people between the ages of 25 and 34, is down once again.* Falling marriage rates among the young isn’t news, that has been the trend for decades, but the decline in the past two years since the onset of the global financial crisis (GFC ) adds a new twist to an old story. What makes this decline so remarkable is that, unlike previous declines that could be explained by either increasing post-secondary education rates and/or female wages, this drop in marriage rates is among a group that has not experience either of these trends: individuals with a high-school education or less. While overall the marriage rate for this age group fell by 4% between 2006 and 2009 (from 48.9 to 44.9) almost none of that change is explained by marriage delays due to increased education. Marriage rates among those with more than a high school education have stayed fairly constant over the period. The real story here is the change experienced by those with high-school education or less. That group has seen its marriage rate drop precipitously to 44%; 10% lower than it was a decade ago. This change in demographics makes me think that the current state of the economy has played a role in this decline.


In the U.S., those with less education have been the hardest hit in the GFC. Between 2008 and 2009, people with less than a high-school education saw an increase in unemployment from 9% to 14.6% and those with high-school only saw an increase from 5.4% to 9.7%. Compare this to the unemployment rate of those with a college degree; they saw their unemployment rate increase only 2%, from 2.6% to 4.6%.** In 2010, a person with less than a high-school education was three times more likely to be unemployed than a person with a college degree. This puts a large share of the burden of the recession on those who are already among the lowest income earners.

Marriage in hard times does provide a certain level of insurance, particularly if both people in the relationship are, to some degree, employable. Entering into marriage when one or both parties is already unemployed, however, is like buying insurance after you have already crashed the car. No one wants to provide that kind of coverage. What does seem to be happening though is that marriage insurance is being replaced by cohabitation insurance. The number of couples who are cohabitating has increased significantly over the GFC ; between 2009 and 2010 the number of unmarried opposite-sex couples increase by 13% -- and increase which translates into over three-quarters of a million newly cohabitating couples.*** Coincident with this increase is an increase in cohabitation among the unemployed. In couples that formed between 2009 and 2010 only 39% had both partners employed, compared to 50% in couples who were already cohabitating in 2009. Men in these new couples were less likely to be employed then men in existing couples as well; in 24% of the newly created couples the man was unemployed compared to 14% of those who were already cohabitating in 2009. So marriage is down, and cohabitation is up both for reasons that appear to be related to unemployment and the recession.

There is another piece of this story that makes it unique to the US and that has to do with incarceration rates. Having been incarcerated in the past penalizes men not only on the labor market but on the marriage market as well. In the US, among those (age 19-24) with less than a high-school education, 1 in 10 men were incarcerated at some point in 2006-2007. This is significantly higher than those with high-school degree only, where 1 in 33 were incarcerated that year , but that difference pales in comparison to those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. In that educational category 1 in 500 men were incarcerated at some point in 2006-2007.**** I don’t have the post-GFC figures of incarceration rates by education levels, but even without an increase in incarceration rates those with both low education levels and criminal records are additionally disadvantaged on the labor market in hard times. If incarceration rates stay high in the US (where they are in fact the highest in the world) then this trend towards low marriage rates of the less educated can be expected to persist, particularly if the labor market is slow to recover.

* Population Reference Bureau ** Bureau of Labor Statistics Documents *** Kreider, Rose (2010). "Increase in Opposite-Sex Cohabiting Couples From 2009 to 2010 in the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) to the Current Population Survey (CPS)," Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division Working Paper, on Sept. 23, 2010.**** Sum, Andrew, Ishwar Khatiwada, Joseph McLaughlin and Sheila Palma (2009). “Dropping Out of High School.” Center for Labor Market Studies,  Northeastern University

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