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.There are currently no comments highlighted.