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Episode Transcript

In last week’s episode, we learned that there are a lot of different reasons why people get married.

WOMAN: We got married because we love each other.

MAN: To have a family, to continue tradition.

MAN: I’m Catholic, so tradition is a big part of our lives.

MAN: In India it is a social thing to get married.

WOMAN: His visa was expiring, and so it was either pay for him to go out of the country to get a new visa, or we could get married and have a party.

WOMAN: We just finally decided it would be easier to conform.

And there are a lot of reasons why people don’t get married:

WOMAN: Marriage is …it’s a big commitment.

MAN: It doesn’t make sense, the whole institution of marriage.

WOMAN: I prefer to be single and free.

WOMAN: I think finding a partner is damn hard.

MAN: Why people get married? I have no idea.

WOMAN: And a lot of people ask me why I’m not getting married, you’re beautiful and this and that. It doesn’t work with me.

Which brings us to today’s program: “Why Marry? Part 2,” in which we continue to bust the myths of modern marriage and, while we’re at it, come up with a whole new idea for what marriage could be.

MAN: When I was young I used to think that might be a cool thing to do. I don’t think it’s a good idea anymore.

WOMAN: That’s a little unromantic to me.

MAN: It sounds a bit too contractual to me.

WOMAN: That’s hilarious.

*      *      *

In our last episode, we heard from the University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers about how marriage today is fundamentally different than it was 50 or 60 years ago. It moved from a factory model — with the husband as CEO, the wife as homemaker, and with what economists call “production complementarities”,  to something else:

Justin WOLFERS: We’ve moved to what economists would call consumption complementarities. We have more time, more money, and so you want to spend it with someone that you’ll enjoy. So similar interests and passions. We call this the model of hedonic marriage. But really it’s a lot more familiar than that. This is just economists giving a jargon name to love. So you want someone who’s actually remarkably similar to you or has similar passions that you do. So it fundamentally changes who marries who.

It also changed how many people marry. Here’s the Harvard economist Claudia Goldin:

Claudia GOLDIN: Marriage, let’s face it, is on the decline in many different ways.

That’s right. Even though marriage is still more popular in the U.S. than in many wealthy countries, our marriage rate is at an all-time low. Okay, so who’s still getting married, and who isn’t? Ivory Toldson teaches counseling psychology at Howard University and is a research analyst at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Ivory 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.

Okay, so education and income are correlated with marriage rates, which may not be so surprising, considering what Justin Wolfers told us earlier:

WOLFERS: The grumpy, the hard to employ, the selfish would all be far less likely to be marriageable and therefore be less likely to be married than others.

Okay, what other traits affect marriage rates? Well, religion is still a driving force toward marriage. And, as the U.S. grows less religious,  that means less marriage. This may also explain why Western Europe has even lower marriage rates than ours. And what about immigrants to the U.S.? First-generation immigrants are more likely to marry – they may be more religious or traditional than their U.S. counterparts – but those numbers dip dramatically for the second and third generations. One area where marriage is rising, is among gay couples, not surprisingly, since same-sex marriage has only recently been allowed. Since 2004, there have been an estimated 71,000 same-sex marriages in the U.S., with many more expected — so, not a huge number but an upsurge nonetheless. And what about marriage rates by race? Let’s look at the breakdown for men. Roughly 59 percent of Asian men in the U.S. are married, followed by white men at 54 percent, Hispanic men at 45 percent, and black men at just 36 percent. That low number for black men is especially an issue for black women.

Nina BRUCE: I am Nina Bruce, I am a native Baltimorean born and raised.

Like Nina Bruce.

BRUCE: I am 32. I work for the government. And I am actively dating in Baltimore and Washington DC.

People want to know why you’re single which is a crazy question because you can’t answer that sometimes and they want to know what you’re doing about it. I’ve done everything. Speed dating, I did a lock and key party,, eHarmony, and of course friends love to set me up. Oh, I know the perfect person for you. Everybody knows the perfect person for you.

We asked Bruce why she wants to get married:

BRUCE: For me, marriage is important for a couple of reasons. I would love to have that bond with someone, I know that that is the core of why I want to get married. And also economically I want to have kids, and not on my own.

But she hasn’t been having much success:

BRUCE: It’s hard to find someone who is in the same playing field. I mean someone who is not of the same background but someone who A) wants to get married B) is able to or be in a healthy relationship whether it be financially, physically, or mentally. Even spiritually. It is important to me to date within my race. I think there’s a lot of pressure. I would be open to dating outside of my race but I think there’s a lot of pressure.

Nina Bruce is worried about the availability of eligible black men to marry. Ivory Toldson, the Howard scholar we heard from earlier, says that black men are overrepresented in the categories associated with not being married: lower-income, education, and living in bigger cities. But Toldson also says that the ratio of available black men to women in the U.S. is not as skewed as most people think: So you have about 800,000 more black women with at least a bachelor’s degree than there are black men. But there are more black men, about 300,000 more black men who have incomes over $75,000 than black women.

Toldson analyzed data from Atlanta and Washington, D.C.:

TOLDSON: Both of these cities are seen as, you know, kind of these meccas of progressive black people. And so there was a lot of talk about the ratio, you know whether there is a ratio of black women to black men in these cities. And you typically hear things like 12 to one, 15 to one. If you all went to either one of these cities and just asked someone randomly on the street, you know, what’s the ratio of black women to black men in the city, I guarantee you unless they’d read my research that they’d say something above 10 to one.

You guarantee us? Alright, we’ll take you up on that. We asked a bunch of people in Atlanta how many marriageable black women there are for every black man.

MAN: Ratio of black women to black men…I don’t know, I would say probably 3 to 1. There’s a lot of ladies in Atlanta?

WOMAN: 20 women for every 1 black guy.

MAN: I would say around 2 to 1.

WOMAN: I’ve found women here have got to the point that they dated so many guys and been flaked over so many times it wouldn’t hurt to try dating a female.

WOMAN: I think people’s guard is up.

WOMAN: Incarceration having a big factor in it as well, maybe even people not being employed.

Okay, and here’s Ivory Toldson with the real answer:

TOLDSON: So the true ratio in both of these cities is 1.3 to one. Then of course if you get into the educated population you’ll see the ratio get even more skewed, and it goes up to about 1.8 to one in Atlanta and 1.5 to one in Washington D.C. If you’re a young black woman and you want an educated black man, these corrected ratios may give you some comfort, but in real time it still can be a challenge. You know, I’m not trying to put my brothers out there, but I know that some successful black men who are exposed to information like there’s a 15 to one ratio in the city that you live in, they become less committal in relationships and more restrictive in what they believe they deserve. This is certainly not true of all, but if we’re just looking at the entire landscape and how a lot of this information could be misused, that there is a tendency for some men to exploit the data.

So as you can see, whenever you look at one big story about marriage, there are dozens of small ones lurking just beneath it. And yes, we have more of those stories. Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: if the marriage rate is so low, does that mean that the birth rate is also low?

Celinda LAKE: In just six years, half of every kindergarten class in this country is going to be the children of single moms.

And, if the old model of marriage just isn’t attractive anymore, how about a new one?

WOLFERS: What you’re describing is a move away from a one-size-fits-all contract that’s written by the church to a couple that’s sitting down and writing their own contract.

*      *      *

As we’ve been hearing today, marriage has many causes — and, therefore, many consequences. Which means that politicians will inevitably find something to say about it. Here’s Marco Rubio, the Republican U.S. Senator from Florida:

Marco RUBIO: The greatest tool to lift people, to lift children and families from poverty, is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.

Is marriage really a poverty-fighting tool? Probably not as much as Rubio says. Yes, higher income is correlated to a higher marriage rate, but as Justin Wolfers told us earlier, a lot of the good things about married people are because of the people who choose to get married, not because of marriage itself. That said, you can see why politicians care so much about marriage:

LAKE: For one thing, unmarried women are one of the most Democratic voting constituency groups now in the country.

That’s Celinda Lake. She’s a Democratic pollster and strategist. She also co-wrote a book called What Women Really Want. She’s also, in her own words, “one of the political world’s most avid whitewater rafters.”

LAKE: It’s very relaxing and really fun. And we often do it in Glacier National Park which is my favorite.

Lake says that men who aren’t married split their votes between parties, although lean Democrat. But unmarried women are almost a Democratic voting bloc – a diverse bloc, yes, of young and old, rich and poor. Right now, they make up about a quarter of the voters in the U.S. – but they don’t turn out like their married counterparts.

LAKE: We often talk for example about 22 million missing voters, 22 million unmarried women out there who don’t vote. And so the question is, if they came in and when they come in, they can really determine what happens. We could easily say that there are enough votes among unmarried women to easily determine which party would control the House and which party controls the Senate.

Married women, meanwhile, are not nearly as monolithic – although there’s a wrinkle to their voting patterns too.

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.

Celinda Lake has noticed one other marriage trend – really an unmarried trend – that is more dramatic than any of this. It’s the number of unmarried women who are having kids.

LAKE: In 1980, 18 percent of births were to unmarried women and today it’s 42 percent. I mean, that is a change within half of my lifetime. In just six years, half of every kindergarten class in this country is going to be the children of single moms.

This inevitably has political consequences and economic consequences:

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.

So would these unmarried mothers necessarily be better off if they were married? To Celinda Lake, the answer isn’t so clear:

LAKE: Does poverty produce being unmarried or does being unmarried produce poverty? It’s a bit of a circular phenomenon, but it’s still very much true that  poverty, the pressures of poverty, are producing more single families. There’s a very provocative article that said what single moms need is not marriage but childcare. And in the immediate future, we just need a very, very different structuring of our social services.

For instance?

LAKE: I think it’s the question that hasn’t been thought through very much at all. And I think we don’t have a legal structure, societal structure, political structure really ready to deal with this phenomenon.

In a way, all the answers about marriage lead back to the same question: is it good for us? As an institution, does it make us happier, healthier, wealthier, more stable in all the ways that we deem important? The fact is: that question is pretty hard to answer. The people who are more successful on all these levels are more likely to be married, but we can’t say with any certainty whether marriage itself is responsible. But let’s pretend for a minute that it is, that marriage – regardless of who the participants are – makes us better off. If that’s the case, the downward trend in marriage is a bad thing, and it would be nice to reverse it. One barrier to marriage may be that it’s such a big commitment — a permanent commitment, at least in theory. But what if it weren’t? What if you could change the terms of marriage? We went back to our marriage expert Justin Wolfers:

DUBNER: All right, Justin, one last question let me ask you. This episode came about in part because of an email we received from a listener who writes, I’ll read you one paragraph of his note, “For the last six years,” he says, “I’ve been developing a theory about how marriage should be legal social contracts. I feel that legal marriage, not marriage by the church should be treated more like employment agreements. These “marriage contracts” should bring with them a term that ranges from three to five years. The terms of the contract will be developed by both parties, but I feel that they should include things like expectations, key areas of responsibilities, and so on.” He goes on for a bit about why this is so. I’m just curious how you think an idea like that might work. Would it defeat the very purpose that most people are seeking in a marriage? Would it enhance the strength of marriages that are good? Would it strengthen and release marriages that are bad? What do you think?

WOLFERS: So I think from an economist’s perspective if what you’re describing is a move away from a one-size-fits-all contract that’s written by the church to a couple that’s sitting down and writing their own contract, deciding what features are particularly important to them and what they want to promise to each other you’re moving from offering one product on the shelf, traditional marriage, to many products on the shelf, traditional marriage and all these other variants that happen to suit your lifestyle better. We usually think that increasing choice like that makes people better off.

Now Justin Wolfers – and his partner Betsey Stevenson – they did draw up a marriage contract. It spells out terms of their finances and inheritance, hospital visitation rights, issues related to their two kids.

DUBNER: Is your contract with Betsey renewable, or is it for the long run?

WOLFERS: Oh that’s a part I didn’t actually address. So your listener has a view that marriage contracts should be able to be rolled over in three to five years. That’s a part whereas an economist I think what he’s suggesting, he’s removing the freedom to contract over longer periods. And that’s actually a terrible idea. So think about some of the most important decisions you make as a couple. You want to go to business school and you want me to support you during that. You know, I’m willing to do that, but the payoff to me comes in ten years’ time. So the only way we’re going to be able to get to a place where I will support you through business school will be if I can write a ten-year contract. Basically I think you want to let people write contracts of whatever duration it is that makes most sense to them. Now, we need to also be aware that people have psychological biases. My friends in behavioral economics are right about that. And sometimes we fail to understand the future well enough. So we want to write sophisticated contracts understanding our own limitations. But there’s certainly a view that things like supporting each other’s careers, or the major investments we make through children that we want to be able to make much, much longer commitments than just three to five years.

DUBNER: On the other hand, if the problem with a failed marriage is that it failed, then a contracted marriage whose contract expires and is not renewed is not a failure. Would there be any advantage to that?

WOLFERS: So this is trying to draw a distinction between not being renewed and being fired.

DUBNER: Right, essentially, right exactly.

WOLFERS: So I’m sure it’s worth sitting down every few years and rather than just assuming the marriage is working out and continuing on, I’m sure it is worth sitting down and saying, is this employment relationship or is this marital relationship working out. And if it’s not, seeing whether there are ways to fix it. And if it’s not working out, then separating. And so if the idea is that we need a forcing mechanism to actually have that conversation, I think it’s important to have that conversation. That’s the sense in which I say you want to be aware of our own limitations. Your listener seems to think that one of our limitations is that we never go back and revisit the choices that we made. If that’s true for you then you should build in an annual review.

Isn’t that romantic? Yeah, you all seem to think so too …

MAN: No I think that kind of ruins the commitment and the meaning behind it.

WOMAN: I think that would be too much of an easy out for people.

WOMAN: That’s what cohabitating is for!

WOMAN: No, I wouldn’t want to do that. I like that we’re kinda locked in.

WOMAN: Having children changes everything about a marriage and I think the kids need stability.

MAN: You have to renew it every day, to maintain true love.

MAN: It would take emotion out, it would become a business deal.

MAN: That’s something like the NBA isn’t it.

MAN: Maybe this contract thing could work? Eh, I don’t know.

MAN: I’d rather have that for friends, yes. But not for marriage.

WOMAN: I told my husband last year, do you want a maid or a lover? And he says I want a lover! And I go, then we need to get a housekeeper. So I re-negotiated a housekeeper last year.  

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