Acton Institute Powerblog

How the Economy Affects Marriage Rates

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marriageeconomyFor the past three decades, there has been an attempt by the political class to divide conservatism into two main branches: social and economic. The two are often pitted against each other despite the fact that most conservatives in America would identify with both sides. Mainstream conservatives realize what the elite class does not: economic and social factors are inextricably linked together.

Consider, for example, the connection between the economy and marriage. According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, the share of American adults who have never been married is at an historic high. In 2012, one-in-five adults ages 25 and older (about 42 million people) had never been married; in 1960, only about one-in-ten adults (9 percent) in that age range had never been married.

About half of all never-married adults (53 percent) say they would like to marry eventually. Out of that group, three-in-ten say the main reason they are not married is that they have not found someone who has what they are looking for in a spouse. So what’s holding them back? For women, the reason seems to be primarily economic. More than two-thirds (78 percent) of never-married women say finding someone who has a steady job would be very important to them in choosing a spouse or partner.

This makes finding a spouse more difficult since fewer young men have been able to find steady work. According to Pew Research, labor force participation among men—particularly young men—has fallen significantly over the past several decades. In 1960, 93 percent of men ages 25 to 34 were in the labor force; by 2012 that share had fallen to 82 percent And among young men who are employed, wages have fallen over the past few decades. For men ages 25 to 34, median hourly wages have declined 20% since 1980 (after adjusting for inflation).

Pew Research also notes that among never-married adults ages 25 to 34, the number of employed men per 100 women dropped from 139 in 1960 to 91 in 2012, despite the fact that men in this age group outnumber young women in absolute numbers:

In other words, if all never-married young women in 2012 wanted to find a young employed man who had also never been married, 9% of them would fail, simply because there are not enough men in the target group. Five decades ago, never-married young women had a much larger pool of potential spouses from which to choose.

Marriage plays a significant economic role, affecting everything from poverty to student loans repayments to the overall economy. Unless the trend is reversed, the decline in marriage rates could have a long-term negative impact on the economy. It could even create a self-perpetuating downward spiral as the poor economy leads to fewer marriages leading to an even worse economy.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution for fixing either America’s economy or the nation’s marriage problem. But getting policymakers to recognize the two can’t be separated will help them design — and allow us to champion — more effective policies for our country’s future.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Dylan Pahman

    This is a great post, and something that, I think, is too often overlooked. The relationship between marriage and economic stability goes both ways: lack of stable homes leads to economic instability, but economic instability also leads to lack of stable homes. The solution is not as simple as “more poor people need to get married.” They do, but their socioeconomic context also contributes to pessimism and apathy toward marriage in the first place, and not always unjustifiably.

  • polistra24

    This is a simple truth, but I don’t think you’ll find “mainstream conservatives” agreeing with it. Most of them put the cause backwards, saying that you need to solve marriage before everything else. This is a copout, and helps them to maintain their primary belief in financialism. Everything is OK as long as it makes bankers infinitely rich.

    A few populists get it right. Buchanan always gets it right, and Sam Brownback very briefly got it right. You have to bring back FACTORY JOBS to America if you want to fix marriage. And the only way to bring back FACTORY JOBS is to strictly control the financial sector and reinstate firm tariffs on imported stuff AND imported labor. You also need to get rid of Die-Versity requirements and environmentalism.

    But you’ll never find a mainstream conservative doing ANYTHING about Die-Versity or slowing down the lethal acceleration of EPA. Instead, every Republican president has advanced those evil causes FASTER than every D president. Obama may be an exception to this rule, but Jeb will not be an exception. We can be 100% sure that Jeb will double EPA’s workforce and double the aggressive lethality of the Department of “Justice”.

    • Michael

      I am not sure of your definition of financialism. That said, the strength of the US dollar is one of the most significant factors responsible for the export of manufacturing jobs. Of course, if we ‘solve’ that problem US citizens will be working in manufacturing jobs but will be able to purchase far less stuff with their weaker dollars since we will no longer be able to export paper and import stuff. I also don’t disagree with your assignment of culpability to the overreaching regulatory state for destroying wealth and manufacturing. On the point of the post, however, I think that we can and must work on the attractiveness and strength of the institution of marriage before all of our economic imbalances are ‘solved.’

  • H. Kirk Rainer

    One area to consider is divorce law; as states adopted No-Fault and Unilateral forms, the divorce rate radically rose while marriage per capita has steadily decline.