Why Marry? (Part 2): A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: comedy_nose)

(Photo: comedy_nose)

In last week’s podcast, “Why Marry? (Part 1),” we talked with economists Justin Wolfers and Claudia Goldin about how marriage has changed over the last half century. How popular is marriage these days? Are married people happier? Is divorce as prevalent as we hear?

Now it’s time for “Why Marry? (Part 2).” (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) With the U.S. marriage rate at an all-time low, around 50 percent, we try to find out the causes, and consequences, of the decline of the institution.

First, to get a picture of who marries today and who does not, we talk with Ivory Toldson, a professor of counseling psychology at Howard University and research analyst at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. He tells us:

TOLDSON: People who are less educated tend to be married less than people who are more educated. People who have higher incomes are more likely to be married than those who have lower incomes. And people in smaller cities are more likely to be married than people in larger cities. And that’s true across all races.

One area of particular interest to Toldson is the marriage rate among African-Americans. He talks about his research into the question “Are there enough successful black men for the black women who want them?” The answer is nuanced — but surprising nonetheless.

We also hear from Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist and co-author of the book What Women Really Want. Lake has spent much of her career looking into the intersection of marriage and politics. For instance:

LAKE: We asked married men and married women: Do you usually vote the same way as your spouse? And 73 percent of married men said confidently yes, and 49 percent of married women say yes. And I call that the “sure honey” factor.

Lake talks about one of the most striking consequences of the low marriage rate: the number of unmarried women who are having children. She tells us that in 1980, 18 percent of births were to unmarried women, while the number today is just over 40 percent. There are inevitable economic ramifications to such a dramatic shift:

LAKE: Two-thirds of unmarried women say that there was some basic cost that they had in their families that they couldn’t make ends meet in the last year. They couldn’t pay the bill compared to 40 percent of married mothers.

For  years, marriage has been promoted as a way to fight poverty, particularly for women with children. But would these mothers be better off if they were married? The answer isn’t clear.

What is clear is that the old model of marriage is nowhere near as attractive as it once was. So how about a new model? What would happen if marriage were treated more like an employment contract?


The only thing this two part series on marriage proved to me is that Wolfers doesn't know jack about marriage. I know you tried to balance it out at the end but I lost quite a bit of respect for the blog while listening to this.

Seriously, he suggests sitting down and talking about how your marriage is working every few years??? Try every two weeks or months at most. The other thing he completely misses the ball on is that the selection bias of marriage isn't as relevant when it's no longer about the other person and more about tradition. The reason marriages are failing is exactly because flawed people are jumping in for the wrong reasons.

For the record, my marriage is the best thing that has ever happened to me and something that surprises me is the freedom within that long term commitment.

University of Chicago MBA


"The reason marriages are failing is exactly because flawed people are jumping in for the wrong reasons."

If that was true, we should be seeing astronomically high marriage rates, and a tradition of marriage that remains strong, coupled with astronomically high divorce rates. But that is not what we're seeing.

Marriages are failing because too many people see marriage the way Gretta Cohn does: as something that should be treated like an employment contract; as something that "needs a new model" instead of an old one that worked; as something in which having kids (i.e. starting an indivisible family unit) is an afterthought rather than the whole point.


"But would these mothers be better off if they were married? The answer isn’t clear."

If noticing basic facts is a troublesome experience that gets in the way of evangelizing your radical ideology, then yes, the answer isn't clear.

This blog post follows the Freakonomics pattern as of late: interesting statistic, followed by absolute refusal to get into how the statistic breaks down or why the statistic exists. You might just commit the high crime of noticing something. So, here are a few follow-up questions:

Which groups are pulling the illegitimacy statistic up or down?

What societal changes have happened since 1980 and today that might impact the incentives to marry before having kids? What were some social forces discouraging illegitimacy? Are any particular ideologies stronger or weaker now than they used to be?

You mention the intersection of marriage and politics but, incredibly, fail to mention the marriage gap between Democrat and Republican voters. Why might this not be relevant? (For more on the marriage gap, the Economist does a not-terrible job covering it: http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21591624-republicans-should-worry-unmarried-women-shun-them-marriage-gap)


Enter your name...

The answer actually isn't clear, because the Devil's in the details.

The main financial benefits for lower-middle class people are (1) two incomes and (2) only needing to rent one apartment. Things like income tax breaks don't matter, because they aren't usually paying any federal income taxes anyway.

So if you take one illiterate/unemployed/drug addict/mentally ill/otherwise economically unproductive man and marry him to one working mother with two children, then you now have four people living in one household off one salary instead of just three. That woman is now (financially) worse off than she was when she was single, because she now has to buy food and clothes for four people instead of three.

On the other hand, if you take one man with a low-skill job, and marry him to the same working mother with the same two children, then you have four people living in one household off two incomes. That woman is (on average) financially better off than she was when she was single, because there are now two people buying food and clothes, but only one home that needs to be rented.

And similarly, if these adults don't choose to legally marry, but still live together, they'll get most of the economic benefits, and if they do legally marry, but maintain separate homes, then they won't get most of the economic benefits.



Wait, who's saying we should take insane, unemployed drug addicts and marry them to people? That would be a devilish (or maybe Swiftian?) detail if anyone had actually proposed it.

I'm merely saying that if women insisted on marrying the person they had kids with (and obviously this isn't going to work unless the insistence on marriage comes BEFORE the fun part of having kids), then it's obvious they'd be better off.

Anyway, once again the Freakonomics comments (I don't mean to single you out) focus myopically on financial benefits alone, as if Dad is good for nothing but an extra source of income. We subsidize the crap out of single moms, but the resultant kids still do worse in basically every regard. The real benefits of marriage come from the intact nuclear family.


You barely touched on two major claims about single mothers: that their children are more likely to fail in school, and more likely to turn to crime. It would make a great follow-up show (Why Marry? 3) to hear whether these claims are true or false, what studies have been done, and what follow-ups.

PS: It was nice of whoever did your transcript to improve Lake's English by changing the two times that she used "phenomena" but meant "phenomenon."


There's something wrong with these podcasts: you made it sound as if the only alternative to being married is being single. What about cohabitation?

For instance, a child born to a unmarried woman is not necessarily born to a single mother.


Cohabitation's long-term effects on the kids are about the same, sometimes worse, than single parenting.


More generally speaking, single = not married, and not married = single. If you're dating, cohabiting, courting, or even engaged, you're still effectively single, because your significant other has no more legal obligation to you than he would a one-night-stand. Civil unions might be different, but I think those get counted as marriage anyway.

toni timpke

thanks for all your great work..always fascinating..

xcept, why is ''why marry'' part two, the same as part one?

looking forward to everything you do,

sincerely, toni


Hi guys,

I really enjoyed the show. However, it really irks me that you advertise for Lumosity. I understand that advertising is absolutely important for your podcast, but neuro-BS companies that exploit limited awareness of neuroscience are just not companies you should advertise for...


I am getting very tired of people quoting the jump in the rate of children born to unmarried mothers. There are many stable families in which, for various reasons, the parents have decided not to legally marry. The data need to be sorted to exclude mothers who are in long-term, committed relationships.


They do sort this out. The evidence is still that in a huge majority of cases, the children of unmarried mothers fare worse in the long term. This is true even when they're in long-term committed relationships that aren't marriages.

There may be "many" stable families headed by unmarried parents, but these "many" are actually quite few if you look at the general population, and even fewer if you rule out people with other significant pre-existing advantages like a set of available grandparents nearby who can step in and help out or, more significantly, people who are widowed.

Katya Vasilaky

I'm surprised that economists haven't looked at the "informal" or "missing" markets of "marriage." Freakonomics podcast should team up with another NPR podcast called Savage Love.

Savage Love discusses the many arrangements that do and do not involve marriage, but lead to successful long term partnerships. They could include all sorts of "crazy" things that economists may find hard to imagine.

In any case, the parameters on which partners match on changes over time, and so do the rules on which they match. This is a dynamic model with updating as an economist, like myself, might say. Marriage and divorce rates are metrics that aren't capturing the underlying market at play. Furthermore, that market has changed in relation to other countries, so the comparisons seems erroneous.

All in all, it was a fun podcast to listen to.

Katya, PhD
Columbia U


I can't take seriously any academic who is trying to argue that cause and effect between poverty and being a single parent isn't clear. This type of argument is just political nonsense. Are there causal factors that influnce both? Of course; poor education will lead to both low income and making bad life choices. But this doesn't change the fact that choosing to be a single parent will directly increase the likelihood of being in poverty, and choosing to get married will directly reduce the likelihood of being in poverty.

No One

You guys left out a HUGE amount of data regarding the rise in rates of Single Mothers and it has nothing to do with Secularism but the skyrocketing rates of the normalization of trauma and the inability for trauma survivors to maintain healthy intimacy!

This situation of 50%+ of children being born to single mothers was predicted in the 1960's in a The Moynihan Report, where the sociologist looked at why it was that nationwide unemployment was going down but was rising in the Black American Community. Now that we're seeing the 1965 statistics in 2014 across every race/ethnicity, religion, etc. we're seeing that Moynihan was freaking psychic because point for point, he was right.

People in the higher economic brackets getting married more often than poor people isn't because they're educated but because they're less likely to be suffering from multigenerational trauma!

The wealthy are getting married because they're able to access mental health and addiction treatments that allow them to stop the generational progression of trauma that keeps those in poverty in poverty and in prison.

You guys are putting the cart before the horse.

Trauma survivors and the mentally ill are more apt to act out sexually, resulting in more unplanned pregnancies... The trauma and abandonment make it so they're incapable of maintaining healthy intimacy and THAT means they're less able to stick with a partner or baby-daddy long enough to get married or if they do, end up divorced because of their inability to stop injecting chaos as part of a repetition compulsion.

The data you're presenting in this episode treats everyone the same, as if everyone had the same cognitive abilities and mental health, when that is just not the case. It's very naive to think that in something as emotionally based as marriage and family being discussed, we can treat the humans as if they all have the same ability to choose healthy partners and tolerate relationships.

Moynihan Black Poverty Report Revisited 50 Years Later - NPR

Was the Moynihan Report right? Sobering findings after 1965 study is revisited - WaPo
New research released by the Urban Institute on Thursday comparing the social and economic status of African American families in 1965 to their condition today paints a troubling picture about their current state — and, by extension, the long-term economic survival of the collective black community.

Nearly 50 years after the release of the U.S. Department of Labor report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which was highly controversial and widely criticized at the time, the new Urban Institute study found that the alarming statistics in the report back then “have only grown worse, not only for blacks, but for whites and Hispanics as well.”



Interesting idea, but why would you think that trauma and mental illness are the causes here? In other words: since marriage rates are declining, then you must be arguing that modern-individuals have experienced significantly more untreated trauma than previous generations. I have a hard time believing that, or believing that the large (double-digit percentage) declines in double-parent households is due to that trauma (which I assume includes war trauma or sexual trauma). The percentage declines in marriage rates certainly don't match-up with the percentage of men who have gone to war, and I have doubts that sexual trauma rates have increased over the past 100 years.