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?


I stumbled on this video the other day. Not sure how true it is, but their main argument makes sense. (The argument is that increased sexual liberation has reduced the desire of men to get married, since sex can be obtained rather easily without marriage.)


.. To add to my previous comment: this idea of the "economics of sex" might also explain why the poor women in general and African-American women (since they tend to be disproportionately poor) have lower marriage rates -- because, in order to compete with other women, they feel that they need to lower the "price" of sex.


What incentive do heterosexual males have to marry heterosexual women in 2014? What is in it for men to marry women if men can get the same things that come with marriage without going through the state to legally bind them to any woman for any period of time?

People can have kids without marriage. People can live together without marriage. People can have companionship, sex, and even open up joint accounts without it.

Tell me, what is in it for men in 2014 to marry?

jon ledbury

it was only ever about property, if there's no property there's no point. It was maybe valuable as a social declaration of exclusivity - he/she are no longer playing the dating games so everyone else please respect that, but many people don't seem too bothered about that aspect. Now that females are self supporting marriage does seem the most ludicrous charade.
I would say if there are children then there ought to be some form of social ceremony where the parents declare their responsibility for the welfare of the child, so ditch marriage and place the emphasis on the birth ceremony


"it was only ever about property"

This is a widely believed but mythical statement about marriage. Consider the obvious:

Throughout most of our history, the vast majority of men have been extremely poor. Slaves, which have also been a consistent feature of human history, have almost always been something only the rich could afford. How could all these poor men afford wives when hardly any of them could afford slaves?

"Now that females are self supporting marriage does seem the most ludicrous charade."

Hmm...but are we brave enough as a society to admit the consequences of that logic?

"ditch marriage and place the emphasis on the birth ceremony"

The problem, though, is that by that time it's too late. The guy is long gone. You need to get responsibility declared before conception. Thus, marriage needs to be tied to sex, and sex outside of marriage needs to be stigmatized unless you're okay with a very high illegitimacy rate--and all the social consequences that follow it.


Scott Hall

Just finished the podcast. I appreciate this topic, it is something that I study professionally. I wanted to point out that Justin Wolfers oversold the selection effects of marriage. Yes, they are there, but prospective research also shows that people begin to live differently once married that influences their wealth, health, and happiness. The seminal work by Waite and Gallagher, The Case for Marriage, highlights some of such research. In the same book, they highlight the major distinction between marriage and other relationships, which is the vow and expectation of permanence. Take that out of the equation (by contracting for a few number of years) changes marriage completely (just like taking specialization out of it has been doing); it essentially neuters it because people invest differently long-term than they do short-term. In my own interviews with newlyweds who cohabited extensively before marriage they commonly talked about the permanence of marriage that changed things for them, often unexpectedly. Their mindset changed and even though they shared a home for years, they viewed each other differently because of that vow of permanence.

I would also like to add that when people conclude that marriage is a major solution to poverty, that does not mean they believe that single moms simply need to marry and poverty magically disappears. It is shorthand for the undeniable fact that if a person gets a high school education (and even better ,a college education), works, marries, and then has children, the risks of poverty are extremely low (see Brookings report, and others). Now, of course, not everyone has equal access to this pathway, and there are complicating factors involved, but the point often is that there are policies and cultural voices that inhibit this pathway, and they should be critically evaluated if not countered if the goal is to diminish poverty. Also, people will argue that promoting marriage is merely a religious ideal and thus should be separate from government policies. That is not necessarily true. Marriage is both secular and religious, which adds to why it can be very controversial at times.

Thanks for the outlet.




I'm sorry but citing Maggie Gallagher as an expert on this issue is insane. Ditto for Linda Waite, who just teamed up with Maggie to make some cash from the book. Neither Waite nor Gallagher have any expertise in the subject.

And for the guy up stream re: Dan Savage, if absolute monogamy is an essential element of marriage, there would be alot more divorces. Legally, spouses can agree to structure their sex lives without interference from the state. Besides that, there have been no studies that I am aware of that control for monogamy....

Scott Hall

Your opposition sounds personal or ideological--I know that MG carries some baggage. But, they summarize research in the book and similar research has been published since. You can look at the studies and poke holes in them if you like.

Polls show vast majority of people in U.S. define marriage as monogamous and for life, despite divorce and infidelity rates. This social expectation is indeed a critical part of marriage, and people who don't agree with it tend not to marry, which can also decrease divorce. The divorce rate has indeed been lowering, and I suspect that with marriage being more optional today that those who marry are more likely to be gung ho about it than many people in the past who married out of social pressure. Anyway, there certainly are couples who color outside the lines and know about it, and it can stabilize their arrangement, but this appears to be a fairly rare combination.


jon ledbury

In England they've just jiggled about with the law so that if the king had a gay marriage the queen of England couldn't be a man :-) Could FLOTUS be a fellah?


No sympathy for racists like Nina.


Forgive me if someone else has mentioned this in the comments, as I have not read them:

You did not really cover a global aspect of things, I appreciate you are based in the "good ol" US of A, and are very much orientated/biased towards this market - however us simple folk in Europe and HK that you missed a large piece of this puzzle.

A lot of people get married for taxation purposes, in the UK alone you inheritance tax and other forms of tax that when you are married "benefits" you.

please look globally OR just concentrate on America...... so why to Marry (in the US of A) .....

unless I feel asleep during this part of the podcast then I duly apologise



Here are two questions related to marriage. Around the world there is a lot of talk about ageing populations and low birth-rates. Firstly, have the mothers who went back to work in the 1980's averaged a different number of grandchildren compared to the mothers who stayed home? Secondly, from the narrow viewpoint of raising birth-rates, is there any economic logic to paid parental leave? It seems to put the carrot before the cart before the horse.