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How marriage fights poverty

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 19 2012 9:10 a.m. MDT

The best way to ward off poverty, according to Bryan Caplan, is to be married.

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Marriage rates in America are not declining because of poverty, according to Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University. "Being single is more expensive than being married," he argues. "Picture two singles living separately. If they marry, they sharply cut their total housing costs. They cut the total cost of furniture, appliances, fuel and health insurance. Even groceries get cheaper: think CostCo," he writes on his blog Econlog.

But marriage does more than just cut expenses — it actually raises couple’s income. Married men earn about 40 percent more than comparable single men and married women earn about 10 percent less than comparable single women, according to figures from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. "From a couple's point of view, that's a big net bonus," Caplan said.

If being single is expensive, than why are dwindling marriage rates concentrated among the poor?

One explanation is that "disadvantaged men and women highly value marriage but believe they are currently unable to meet the high standards of relationship quality and financial stability they believe are necessary to sustain a marriage and avoid divorce," according to research by Kathryn Edin and Joanna Reed, sociologists at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, their expectations about how life should be before marriage prevent them from actually getting married. They may not have enough money for a down payment on a house, or the funds to pay for a wedding celebration.

Another possibility is that disadvantaged women want to get married, but have difficulty finding suitable partners. "It is easy to spin a hypothetical scenario in which marrying off single mothers to an average male would raise family incomes and reduce poverty," writes Stephanie Coontz in a discussion paper for the Council on Contemporary Families. But unmarried males in impoverished neighborhoods are not average, which is the reason they are not married, Coontz said.

Researchers from the Center for Research on Child Well-Being at Princeton University report results from the Fragile Families Survey showing that unmarried fathers were twice as likely as married ones to have a physical or psychological problem that interfered with their ability to find or keep a job, and several times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. More than 25 percent of unmarried fathers were not employed when their child was born, compared to fewer than 10 percent of married fathers.

Bryan Caplan's explanation is derived from behavioral economics. "Some people are extremely impulsive and short-sighted," he writes. "If you're one of them, you tend to mess up your life in every way. You don't invest in your career ... and you take advantage of your romantic partners. You refuse to swallow your pride — to admit that the best job and the best spouse you can get, though far from ideal, are much better than nothing. Your behavior feels good at the time. But in the long-run people see you for what you are, and you end up poor and alone."

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