The Freakonomics of Marriage: Or, If I’m Married, How Come I’m not RICH Yet?

The year of magical thinking about marriage, reproduction and vaginas (see reviews of Naomi’s Wolf’s hilariously trashed book) continues.  The conservative Heritage Foundation released a report last week that reprises the argument that non-marriage is a source of poverty. Conversely, as a pro-traditional marriage bus stop poster in Washington, DC once promised, magically,  “Marriage Makes You Rich.”  That’s why all the married folk on your street drive BMWs, wear Prada, and vacation in the Hamptons.*

The report’s analysis is descriptively accurate:  More affluent, college-educated Americans marry more and divorce less today than the white and non-white working classes alike and the poor, who seem to be abandoning the institution of marriage in greater numbers. But a correlation isn't the same as a causation.

Maybe it’s not that poor people are poor because they’re not married. Rather, they don’t marry because they’re poor. It’s likely that France’s Minister of Justice Michèle Alliot-Marie was right to conclude that marriage is “a bourgeois institution.” 

I don’t mean “bourgeois” as a criticism. Marriage works best and has the most logic when it can create economies of scale between two individuals with jobs, and/or resources, either tangible in the form of a paycheck, or intangible in their willingness to contribute parenting and domestic labor—even if that means engaging in “ideology mobility,” as I call it, and setting aside patriarchal, “traditional” ideas that husbands should be breadwinners. When these two people with resources of these kinds join in marriage, their lives are easier and more affordable.

At the margins of the economy, however, for the filthy rich and the dirt poor, marriage doesn’t seem to make as much sense.

Consider the most notoriously non-marrying communities in the U.S.:  the multi-million dollar estates of the stars in Beverly Hills and the "abandominiums" of impoverished neighborhoods in rustbelt cities such as my own.

Hollywood celebrities avoid marriage, or do it so casually that some entertainment columnists suspect that it’s more a "publicity extravaganza” than a marriage. Raoul Felder, the famous celebrity divorce lawyer, sees a celebrity marriage as "the first step on the road to divorce."

Kim Kardashian’s 72-day quickie marriage (“Mistake or Fake?” wonders People) is one recent example in a history of Hollywood never-lasting love that stretches back to Elizabeth Taylor. "Express" Hollywood marriages can last from 10 days (Carmen Electra and Dennis Rodman) to three weeks (Drew Berrymore and Jeremy Thomas) to seven months (Shannon Doherty and Ashley Hamilton). InStyle magazine featured Courtney Thorne-Smith on its cover when she married a genetic scientist, but before the magazine hit the newsstands seven months later, the couple had already separated. Hollywood stars must not have the same marital metabolism as the rest of us.

Hollywood marriage founders because there’s too much wealth and individual capital at stake to make it easy, financially advantageous, or worth the risk. Marriage in deeply low-income communities founders because there is too little wealth and too little individual capital at stake to make it easy, financially advantageous, or worth the risk, either.

For example, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ marriage was almost derailed by intricate pre-nuptial negotiations. Douglas had rejected Zeta-Jones' request for $4.4 million for every year they were married, and a house for life. Douglas' attorney was counter-offering $1.4 million a year and a house, but one that would remain a part of Douglas’ estate. But Zeta-Jones, who was pregnant with Douglas’ child, had already agreed to let Douglas keep all the wedding presents worth more than $18,000, and felt that she’d compromised enough.  "She isn't money grabbing,” a friend reassured an entertainment reporter (um, yes, well…). “She just doesn't want to feel like she's getting a raw deal." And Douglas had given his first divorced wife $60 million and a Santa Barbara mansion!

The poor women that Harvard sociologist Kathryn Edin writes about in her fine research on marriage don’t find themselves awkwardly featured on the cover of Instyle. Yet they’re just as “post-marriage.” In Baltimore, less than 10 percent of households now conform to the “traditional” model of a married, heterosexual couple with offspring.  

Edin asked poor women why they wouldn’t marry, and found that they feel "marriage entails more risks than potential rewards." Women recognize that "any marriage is also economically precarious, might well be conflict ridden, and short lived." A poor woman might be better off not married because then "she has the flexibility to lower her household costs by getting rid of him." One woman told Edin that after her boyfriend lost his job, "I was trying to live on my welfare check and it just wasn't enough.… It was just too much pressure on me [even though] he is the love of my life. I told him he had to leave, even though I knew it wasn't really his fault…. But I had nothing in the house to feed the kids."

These women wanted to make sure that they kept everything in their name and control if they ever did marry. That’s the shared, self-protective logic of marriage for those who have a great deal to lose financially and for those who have very little to lose. Edin concludes that her subjects "simply could not afford to keep an economically unproductive man around the house. It's a luxury that a low income mother can't afford."

At the non-marrying economic margins, marriage ironically shares that quality of being a luxury--not all that utilitarian. Marriage for the low-income woman is a luxury in the sense that it’s something she wants and can’t afford. It’s a luxury for the Hollywood star in the sense that it’s something she can afford, but doesn’t need.

Marriage is entered into warily when the going is very tough, or when the going is very easy.

Both Hollywood and the “ghetto” also have attracted criticism for their non-marrying ways. Remedies abound. A frail celebrity marriage can go to an exclusive "couples treatment" at a day spa called Going to Skin in Envino, California. "I have created more love affairs, stopped more divorces, and made more people happy," boasts the spa's founder. The most popular couples package is "endless courtship." The two hour, $375 pampering session offers a privacy soak, dry brushing exfoliation, a cornmeal pineapple facial and massage.

That’s where Hollywood goes to fortify its marriages. Low-income couples in Baltimore go to “marriage education” classes in church basements and state government buildings, funded by the Federal government’s Healthy Marriage Initiative within the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. I can’t tell you if they get body shampoos and cornmeal pineapple facials, but I’m guessing not. 

One empirical conclusion to draw from this tale of two cities is that "marriage works"—is most functional, utilitarian and “value-added”—for the middle class in the U.S., neither Hollywood rich nor ghetto poor. Poor people aren’t poor because they’re not married.  To the contrary, they’re not married because they’re poor.

Poor women don’t reject the idea of marriage. Nor do Hollywood stars. It simply doesn’t end up running as smoothly or make as much sense for them economically.

Also, marriages in the professional class today are likely to pool the intangible assets of labor:  They tend to engage in gender-bending around chores, breadwinning, and childcare, which makes marriage an even more adaptive and convenient arrangement for them—one that makes life easier and more prosperous (and therefore, more appealing).  If you’re filthy rich, those benefits don’t matter as much. If you’re filthy poor, those benefits don’t apply as much.

Maybe the way to shore up marriage, for those who want that, is to shore up the American middle class that is marriage’s natural habitat? With living wages, perhaps, and good jobs?  

*I posted parts of this column at this site in 2011, and update it here.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.