Continuing its rapid downward spiral, the marriage rate in the U.S. hit another historic low in 2018, according to a recent CDC report.
“Much variation can be seen in marriage rates over the 1900–2018 period,” according to the report, with rates ranging from 9.3 to 12 per 1,000 in the period 1900-1929, dropping to 7.9 during the Great Depression, and then reaching an all-time high (16.4) in 1946. Rates have gradually fallen since, but “stabilized” at 6.8-7 in the period 2009-2017. But “[f]rom 2017 to 2018, the rate dropped 6%, from 6.9 per 1,000 population to 6.5, the lowest of the 1900–2018 period,” and also the lowest recorded level since data have been kept.
What is causing such precipitous declines? A U.S. News and World Report story cites “women’s independence and gender equality.” But another interesting perspective comes from researchers from Cornell, Brigham Young, and South Utah Universities. These researchers find that women aren’t just whining when they complain about a lack of “marriageable men.”
“Recent declines in U.S. marriage are reflected both in delayed marriage and increases in permanent singlehood, punctuated by intermittent spells of nonmarital cohabitation,” open the researchers. Whether due to differences in education, a decline in economic prospects, or racial disparities, “[y]oung women seemingly face shortages of demographically similar men to marry.” And yet, all studies indicate that marriage remains a top priority for most young people. There is a gap between intentions and reality, which the researchers seek to understand. Their discussion focuses on two groups specifically: Poorly educated or low-income women, and highly educated women, both of whom fare the worst on the marriage market. (The women in the middle of the spectrum seem to fare better.)
To conduct their analysis, the researchers use five-year data samples from the American Community Survey, covering the periods 2008-2012 and 2013-2017, then split this data into four groups based on sex and marital status (males and females, married and unmarried). They do not consider same-sex couples, and they assign cohabiting couples into the “unmarried” category instead of the “married” category, which they say reflects cohabitation’s increasingly unstable nature. They then seek to assess “the characteristics of the spouse to whom the unmarried women in our sample would likely be married, assuming they exhibit the same mate selection patterns as currently married women.” The researchers estimate the “synthetic spouse” of each unmarried woman, then compare the characteristics of the synthetic spouse with the characteristics of the actual unmarried men in their sample.
The results are grim, for unmarried women nationwide. “The synthetic spouses had an average income that was about 55% higher ($53,000 vs. $35,000), were 26% more likely to be employed (87% vs. 70%), and were 18% more likely to have a college degree (29% vs. 25%) than the actual unmarried men who were available in the United States. These estimates suggest large differences in the demand and supply of unmarried men with certain characteristics.” In the data for actual unmarried men, “there was an excess supply of men with incomes less than $20,000 (with a shortage of men with incomes greater than $40,000) as well as a marriage market mismatch in education—too many men had only a high school degree and too few had a college or graduate degree.” The researchers also added that, encouragingly, men who married their child’s mother tended to see an income uptick, and that their findings may not accurately represent this reality. Younger and less-educated women had an easier time finding husbands than did older or more-educated women. These findings were much more stark for racial minorities, who “were significantly less likely to find suitable marital partners, regardless of their education or income levels.”
The researchers also understand that marriage doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and thus sought to take geographic location into account. When requiring that marriages take place within PUMAs (Public Use Microdata Areas), the odds of finding good husbands get even lower. “For example,” they report, “a 10% increase in a woman’s age was associated with a 2.42 percentage point decrease in likelihood of finding a match nationwide. When we required all matches to occur within the same PUMA, a 10% increase in women’s age correlated with a 15.32 percentage point decrease in the likelihood of finding a suitable match.”
The researchers close by affirming that yes, claims that marriageable men are hard to find are founded in the research, summarizing, “Our analyses provide clear evidence of an excess supply of men with low income and education and, conversely, shortages of economically attractive unmarried men (with at least a bachelor’s degree and higher levels of income) for women to marry.” They suggest that “promoting good jobs” may thus be more important than promoting marriage education courses as a way to stimulate marriage. They also wonder if, in response to this new trend, women may start considering “marrying down” instead of “marrying up,” but point out that this has historically not been the practice.
Whatever the solution, the problem is real. Whatever the driving forces, being a single woman on the marriage market these days is difficult.