Marriage, Fertility and Male Earnings

North Dakota fracking: higher male incomes did not translate into higher rates of marriage.

One of the great debates in the social science of poverty asks what accounts for the decline in marriage and the increase in out-of-wedlock births. There is a broad consensus among scholars of diverse ideological persuasions that children born into stable marriages tend to fare better in life than those raised by single mothers. The question is why the institution of marriage has declined so precipitously among lower-income Americans even while it remains strong and vibrant among affluent Americans.

In a new paper, “Male Earnings, Marriageable Men, and Nonmartial Fertility: Evidence from the Fracking Boom,” Melisa S. Kearney and Riley Wilson frame the issue this way:

In 2014, over 40 percent of all births in the U.S. were to an unmarried mother, with an even higher rate of 62 percent among non-college educated mothers. A leading conjecture as to why so many less-educated women are choosing motherhood without marriage points to the weak economic prospects of their male partners. The idea is that changing labor market structures and economic conditions have adversely affected the economic prospects of less educated men, making them less “marriageable” from the perspective of the women with whom they sexually partner.

Kearney and Wilson have flipped that conjecture around and hypothesize that improving earnings prospects by non-college educated males would be associated with an increase in marriage and marital childbirth. They tested that hypothesis by examining family formation between 1997 and 2012 in Census micro-areas experiencing a natural gas fracking boom, where non-college educated males experienced a jump in earnings compared to their peers in the rest of the country.

The result: “This analysis does not indicate shift toward marriage in response to an increase in the potential wages of less-educated men associated with localized fracking booms. But both marital and non-marital births increase significantly.”

The authors compared the fracking boom of the 2000s to the Appalachian coal boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, in a different cultural era, increased earnings led to an increase in marriage rates, an increase in the marital birth rate, and a decline in the non-marital birth rate.”

In other words, the conjecture linking men’s income with their marriage prospects may have been valid 4o years ago, but it’s less valid today. Write Kearney and Wilson: “As non-martial births have become increasingly common, individuals are more likely to respond to increased income with increased fertility, whether or not they are married, and not necessarily an increased likelihood of marriage.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The interplay of economics and culture is incredibly complex. But the findings suggest that among a large portion of the American population, marriage is increasingly viewed as optional — regardless of the father’s economic circumstances. Further, out-of-wedlock birth is no longer stigmatized. This research calls into question the idea that blue-collar male earnings are the main stumbling block to family stability. We have passed a cultural Rubicon, and there may be no going back without a major change in values.

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6 responses to “Marriage, Fertility and Male Earnings

  1. Did the study address whether there are racial or ethnic patterns regarding marriage and parenting?

    • Quote from the article: “The point estimates in columns (2) through (5) imply that the main effects are being driven by non-Hispanic whites. There is a sizable increase in both the marital and non-marital birth rate for non-Hispanic whites, whereas for other race/ethnic groups the effects are not statistically different from zero.”

  2. I think the hollowing out of jobs for low-education, low-skill whites is involved… not only in this but in other things like the opioid crisis.

    Blacks have already suffered this problem … i.e. low education, low-skills.. drug use and drugs to make a living.. then sucked into the criminal justice system.. upon which such males do not make desirable family members .. and they themselves don’t want to be in a family with kids where dad is unemployed… cannot get a job , and getting involved in less than legit things not helpful to them or their spouse or kids.

    These are the guys that feel like they’ve been abandoned by the govt and are so desperate they’ll vote for anyone who speaks directly to them and their plight even if they’re clueless idiots spouting out one lie after another. It’s actually amazing these folks actually do register to vote – and do vote.

    Most guys have a lot of pride of being able to take care of themselves and when they fail at that .. and cannot get a job – it totally destroys their ability to maintain any semblance of a responsible life and we’re seeing it .. now..

    they’re on their own – and in no way able to help support others.

    Many folks on the lower education , lower income economic tier only want a job… that’s as far as their horizons have always extended… that’s all they ever wanted, and when that does not happen – they are simply out of the few options they had and give up.

    They typically come from families that do not hold education in high regard.. i.e. do not recognize it as integral to their lifetime well being.. They don’t grow up that way – they don”t get it in high school and later on – when chronically unemployed – they still don’t see the connection beyond something they “should have done”.

    A 40 years old coal miner or factory worker – out of job – don’t know what to do and are afraid of education at the level required for them to compete – and even then they’d be competing against youngsters half their age – willing to work for less and move frequently..

    It’s easy for others to blame them and easy for them to blame others.

    the question is – is it the govt job to “help” them?

  3. What was the saying that pop radio psychologist used to have? No chuppa, no shtuppa? Do you think the change in sexual mores following the widespread availability of birth control and abortion might have had something do to with this? Just a wild thought…

  4. I think the “values” aspect is a bit of a conundrum… and the focus on it – comes – primarily from folks who themselves hold certain values high in their own hierarchy…and decry the “loss” of it in others.

    I respect it – I have my own set.. and personal responsibility and basic honesty at work and home and with others – is right up there.

    but it seems to me that we DO have a a lot of “value” folks who want the best for their own tribe but beyond their own for others suffering in dire circumstances for the lack of employment, education or health care.. well.that’s different.. and sometimes easy to attribute to a lack of “values”.

    In other words – we may not be our brothers keeper but if we stand by and doing little – we may well start to see an unravelling of people’s trust in govt and institutions – and the emergence of leaders who think the solution is to dismember govt…

    that’s a “value” argument also … eh?

  5. I question the basic premise of the “study”. They’ve picked probably one of the worst occupations to use.

    Fracking jobs are notorious boom/bust.. and workers tend to be those who are already at loose ends with respect to settling down and looking for more permanent employment prospects.

    This is another one of those studies these days that is really not objective – and instead pick narrow circumstances that can and often do – preordain the outcome.

    In order to do a more valid study – you’d need to pick a diverse group of higher income jobs – across geography and across occupations…

    Instead, they start off this way: ” A leading conjecture as to why so many less-educated women are choosing motherhood without marriage points to the weak economic prospects of their male partners.”

    and then purposely: ” Kearney and Wilson have flipped that conjecture around and hypothesize that improving earnings prospects by non-college educated males would be associated with an increase in marriage and marital childbirth. They tested that hypothesis by examining family formation between 1997 and 2012 in Census micro-areas experiencing a natural gas fracking boom,”

    I cannot imagine a more unstable job … or prospects for longer-term lifestyle stability – no matter what income!

    Why pick such a narrow-band occupation that has other destabilizing factors to a longer term stable lifestyle?

    And it comes from the usual suspect think tank – NBIR… which seems to specialize in these questionable studies these days.

    This study adds nothing to the body of knowledge.. it just adds confusion to those who are looking for studies to confirm their own biases.

    confusing cause and effect seems to be a popular thing these days.. correlation IS causation… if you selectively pick the variables!

    The men who follow the fracking jobs are NOT good candidates for stable marriage to begin with… and more money from an inherently unstable occupation does not change that.. it’s a “duh” premise.

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