The Economic Reality Of Marriage

At one time, marriage and divorce were dictated by romance, the falling in and out of love. Nowadays, those decisions are being increasingly influenced by economic factors. Host Audie Cornish talks to NPR's Jennifer Ludden and Shankar Vedantam about mobility in marriage and divorce.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. In the intersection of love and marriage and divorce, there are romantic and economic considerations. This past week, NPR's Jennifer Ludden told us that fewer Americans are getting married; and when they do, they're taking longer to get down the aisle. NPR's Shankar Vedantam is working on the other half of the equation - when things go bad, divorce appears to be less of an option. Jennifer Ludden and Shankar Vedantam join me now. Welcome to the program.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having us.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: So, Jennifer, let's start with you because it seems as though the financial pressures are having a bigger impact on what for a long time we all romantically hoped was essentially an emotional decision.

LUDDEN: Right, right. It's harder to say "I do" if you're out of a job, if your hours have been cut. Last year, the number of new marriages in the country dropped a sharp 5 percent. And it's kind of too early to really tell what was going on, but most analysts think this is clearly the bad economy at work.

CORNISH: And, Shankar, what does this mean on the other end of that, then, when it comes to divorce?

VEDANTAM: Well, it's a little complicated, because the research seems to suggest, counter-intuitively I think, that when the unemployment rate goes up in bad economic times, the divorce rate actually goes down. That's now what I think I expected and what a lot of people expected.

CORNISH: So, essentially, people, even when they are unhappy, are sticking it out in their marriages.

VEDANTAM: So, that's one theory. I mean, all we have is the empirical finding is that as the unemployment goes up, divorce goes down. It could be one of two different things, which is that people in fact are unhappy but are sticking it out, even though they are unhappy because they can't afford to divorce. And I have to say that's the more likely explanation that's endorsed by most academics. There's another explanation, which is that bad times are driving couples closer together, and so they are making stronger marriages and therefore they're staying together.

CORNISH: Jennifer, can we get a little deeper into the numbers here about marriage, because for a long time these issues of people not getting married and just cohabitating, they were labeled a problem, and it was something that was considered a problem for a minority group specifically.

LUDDEN: Right.

CORNISH: But it seems like these numbers are going down across the board.

LUDDEN: Marriage rates are down across the board but what you have really is what people call a marriage gap or a divorce divide. You have for college-educated Americans, marriage, while it's declining, it's still pretty popular. There is a high rate of marriage and actually a very low rate of divorce. It's leveled off down to 11 percent in the latest numbers. But if you haven't gone to college, you only have a high-school degree, you're far less likely to get married and far more likely to get divorced. And you're more likely to have children without being married. And so the concerns that once we heard about the African-American and poor communities, we're now hearing much more broadly based in the working-class middle America.

CORNISH: It seems as though what we're seeing is a lack of mobility, that essentially, if you can afford to be married, you will be married. And if you can afford to divorce, then you do that. Does that make sense?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, you know, as I'm listening to Jennifer, here's what I'm thinking; which is that economics seems to play a really powerful role in both whether people get married and then whether they get divorced. It's almost as if there's a certain stickiness in both marriage and divorce. And the stickiness is connected to how wealthy you are. When you are wealthy, you tend to sort of gravitate into the married category and stay there. And when you're not wealthy, you tend to find it hard to get into the married category, and even when you get there, it's easier to fall out of it.

CORNISH: And what's interesting about this is marriage, like owning a home, is something that people have always seen as a part of building your wealth, right?

LUDDEN: And this is a big concern for the social scientists who study this. They worry that, you know, we have this, now, inequality in marriage. And is that then is going to exacerbate inequality in the next generation? As the next college-educated Americans have children, bring them up in these very, you know, nuclear family homes, their children, studies would suggest, have a greater chance of themselves going on to college and then being high achievers. Whereas children raised in homes where the parents are not married, while there may be many happy such relationships and the children will be just fine, on average, they have much poorer outcomes. They're less likely to go to college. And so there's a concern that you're going to exacerbate this inequality.

CORNISH: This isn't about numbers but I want to put the question to both of you. Do you get a sense that this is actually part of a cultural shift in how we view the purpose of the institution itself?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I'm almost getting a sense that there's - you know, our romantic visions of marriage are at odds with the reality of what marriage actually is like in our society. And in some ways, our cultural and romantic views of the institution of marriage have just not kept pace with socioeconomic factors that are driving both marriage and divorce.

LUDDEN: I think marriage used to be where you started your adult life. It was a signal that you were then moving out on your own and you and your spouse would kind of struggle and find success together. And today, what you hear from young people is that it's kind of the cherry on top. They feel they need to achieve financial security, and when they feel set, then they get married. The problem is with a lot of working-class men especially, whose wages have been really stagnant for decades now, they never get to that level of financial security.

CORNISH: NPR's Jennifer Ludden and Shankar Vedantam. Thanks so much.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

VEDANTAM: Thank you.

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