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Thursday, April 19, 2007

What's Love Got to Do with It? The Forces Driving Marriage and Divorce

How have the costs and benefits of marriage changed over time and what explains the changes? Tyler Cowen fills us in:

Matrimony Has Its Benefits, and Divorce Has a Lot to Do With That, by Tyler Cowen, Economic Scene, NY Times: Divorce seems an unusual topic for economists, but decisions to end a marriage weigh costs and benefits and thus reflect economic reasoning. Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson ... at the University of Pennsylvania have led the creation of new studies, which are surveyed in their working paper “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and Their Driving Forces.”

The evidence suggests that married people — especially married men — are better off than the unmarried. But this doesn’t mean that everyone should marry, or that no one should divorce. ...

In the year after a separation, most people report being less happy, at least in one major study based on British data. Nonetheless, one year after the divorce, both men and women are happier for their decisions (Jonathan Gardner ... and Andrew J. Oswald..., “Do Divorcing Couples Become Happier By Breaking Up?”).

In the United States, the availability of divorce has increased with unilateral divorce, which allows either member of the couple to dissolve the union. The change has been associated with lower rates of female suicide and domestic violence, and fewer wives murdered by their husbands. Unilateral divorce shifts the bargaining power to the person who is getting less out of the marriage and thus is most likely to leave. The partner getting more from the marriage has to work harder to keep the other person around, which can be good for the marriage...

When unilateral divorce was adopted, divorce rates rose sharply in the two years that followed, reflecting a pent-up demand for divorce. But after 10 years had passed, the divorce rate went back to normal or in some cases ... it had fallen further.

In fact, the divorce rate ... peaked in the United States in 1979, when it was 22.8 per thousand married couples per year. Since then it has continued to decline, reaching 16.7 divorces per thousand married couples in 2005.

If matrimony as an institution has declined, it is because fewer people are marrying in the first place. Marriage is at its lowest rate in recorded American history, and marriages are shorter... If fewer weddings mean fewer divorces, individuals are probably making better matches. Perhaps there should have been fewer marriages in the first place.

One group more likely to be married today than ever before is Americans over age 65. Men are closing the life expectancy gap with women, and that means fewer widows...

Consistent with economic reasoning, marriage is growing among groups who benefit from marriage the most. Furthermore, the women least likely to remarry are highly educated with a high income, namely those who are best able to handle single life. Women with the least resources are the most likely to remarry.

Unilateral divorce does make for less committed marriages. In states that allow unilateral divorce, a spouse is 10 percent less likely to be putting the partner through school. The obvious fear is that once the costly education is over, the beneficiary will leave... In states with unilateral divorce, adjusting for the relevant demographics, a couple is 6 percent less likely to have a child. Again, couples seem to be making decisions with the prospect of divorce in the back (or the front) of their minds. ...

Often, earlier approaches to marriage were based on the idea of a division of labor; the man would earn the income and the woman would take care of the household. But as female earning power increases, this arrangement makes less sense. Men and women are more likely to pair off on the basis of similar education, similar interests and similar tastes... In other words, modern marriage is more fun.

And what about the children? Don’t they suffer in happiness and future prospects from divorce? Maybe so, but Mr. Wolfers and Ms. Stevenson do not think the question has received a final answer..., when the family is dysfunctional anyway, we don’t know whether divorce harms the children. ...

By the way, Mr. Wolfers and Ms. Stevenson met in a labor economics seminar in graduate school and have been a couple for almost 10 years. They’ve yet to marry.

    Posted by on Thursday, April 19, 2007 at 12:48 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (8)


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