For Richer Or... Richer : The Indicator from Planet Money The effects of assortative mating, or, what happens when people increasingly marry only other people with similar incomes and education.
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For Richer Or... Richer

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For Richer Or... Richer

For Richer Or... Richer

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Hey, everyone; Cardiff and Stacey here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. In his recent book titled Capitalism Alone, the economist Branko Milanović looks at a trend that doesn't get a lot of attention when people discuss rising inequality in the U.S. It's called assortative mating.

BRANKO MILANOVIĆ: Assortative mating means, essentially, that people who are similar in education or income tend to marry each other. To use the great term which is also yours is homogamy because -gamy (ph) is, of course, marriage and homo- (ph) is the same.


Love and romance...

GARCIA: Yeah (laughter)...

VANEK SMITH: ...Economist-style (ph). You got to love it.

GARCIA: ...And Greek words.


VANEK SMITH: And Greek words - so this trend assortative mating is where both people in a married couple have similar incomes and education. That has really shot up in recent decades, especially for people with very high incomes.

GARCIA: And, Branko says, the reasons for it are actually good ones; reasons that we can celebrate, like more freedom for people to choose who they marry and more women participating in the labor force and making more money.

MILANOVIĆ: The reason why I think it came to be is because, essentially - I think it's actually increase in percentage, essentially, women, who go for university education - ability to actually postpone the year of marriage further than it was in the past and, I think, actually preferences between individuals who, you know, find they have much more in common with people who are similar like them.

VANEK SMITH: But this trend also has the effect of increasing income inequality. And the specific way it increases income inequality also has complicated effects on society.

GARCIA: And today on the show, Branko is going to explain what they are.


GARCIA: Welcome back to the show. And our topic today is assortative mating. Why don't you just start by explaining what the specific trend has been in the last few decades?

MILANOVIĆ: I looked at the percentage of young American males who are age between 20 and 35 and who are in the top income group in 1970. And I asked the question, how many of them percentage-wise marry women who are in the same high group versus marrying women from a very low-income group? The ratio was about 1-to-1, so that was in 1970. Now fast forward to today and, actually, we have got numbers for about, like, seven different years. And every year, the ratio increases. In other words, today we have this cohort of the same age - 20 to 35, young American males - marrying three times more women who are from the top labor income bracket - three times more likely to marry them than women from the bottom income bracket. So that said, there's a very dramatic change. For women, the ratio starts also 1-to-1, ends up with 5-to-1.

GARCIA: Wow, so it's a huge trend towards what, I think, colloquially, people sometimes refer to as power couples...


GARCIA: ...Where each side - you know, both sides of the pairing are making a lot of money. They get married. Why does it matter?

MILANOVIĆ: It's a kind of a no-brainer. But if you have a rich guy marrying a poor woman and, likewise, a rich woman marrying a poor guy, these two couples will have the same income. But if you have the opposite situation - rich men and rich women sort of mating and poor woman and poor - I mean, man mating - then, of course, the gap between the two couples is going to be exacerbated by the marriage. It's increasing inequality.

GARCIA: There's also, as you write in the book, a kind of link between increasing assortative mating on the one hand and then the likelihood of making huge investments in children on the other hand, which would seem like it would further entrench the inequality that this has caused.

MILANOVIĆ: I think so, you know? And, you know, it is true that, actually, when you have, for example, these power couples, many of them work really long hours, and they may not have as much time to spend with their children. But I think they - first, there is a very strong emphasis in today's United States that, actually, very educated couples try to find time to spend with their children. And on top of that, they're also able to put them into very good schools when they further, of course, learn things and get an advantage. That would - advantage, basically, gets - you get pay-off of that advantage when - really, when you're 25, 28 or later.

GARCIA: There's another nuance that you write about when it comes to this trend, which is the idea that if you have, increasingly, couples where both the man and the woman or, in the case of gay couples...


GARCIA: ...The man and the man, the woman and the woman have very similar incomes, very similar educational backgrounds, in many cases, similar interests - you know, the same - they like, maybe, the same sports or the same, you know, recreational activities. That might make for stronger, happier couples, and there's nothing inherently wrong with it. But it also does mean that, increasingly, there might be a difference between those very high-income couples at the top and, essentially, everybody else in society. And that might have some implications.

MILANOVIĆ: Yeah. I think it might have some societal implications. If you really were to have a fully 100% assortative mating, that would mean, really, that, essentially, class - implicit class borders would be very strongly drawn on a social level because if you really want to mate only with people who have your interests, who are actually - have really your income level, who can travel, maybe, to Europe on vacation, you're not going then to mingle with people who don't have same similar interests.

GARCIA: Yeah. It also could have some economic implications as well because if you have increasing sameness of the people at the top and then they're distinct in many ways from, let's say, the middle class or people who make lower incomes, then it could also affect the support for, for example...


GARCIA: ...Public schooling, for health care and how that's funded and for all these other kinds of things where the upper classes, essentially, can afford to opt out of but not everybody else can.

MILANOVIĆ: Absolutely. That's actually what is called the social separatism of the rich. For many of the social programs or infrastructure or other things, the rich really - the more they become dissimilar from the rest, the less objectively they have an interest for that. So if, for example, all your kids go to private schools, if you live in a gated community, if you actually go only to the best private, obviously, medical practice - I mean, objectively, with the question that you ask, why should they pay for public education? Why should they pay for public health care? Their interest pushes them not to be concerned about the decay of other public institutions.

GARCIA: Yeah. This is kind of an interesting theme throughout your book, which is that there are some trends that develop organically rather than by deliberate design. I mean, this is not an issue of rich people kind of twirling their mustaches and concocting evil plans to sap money out of, you know, public schools or anything like that. It's people following their own interests, sometimes following their own passions. There's nothing wrong inherently with falling in love with somebody who's similar to you, marrying that person and wanting the best for your kids. It just ends up happening that these trends have all of these other implications that we need to consider, but it's not the product of some kind of evil design.

MILANOVIĆ: I think it's absolutely very important to realize that things are not a product of evil design but a product of self-interest of individuals, which is across the board. There is self-interest of the poor, the middle, the rich - everybody follows their interest. But there is a certain point where you become so different that, actually, there is no, really, reason for you to pay for certain things that you don't believe are giving you any benefit.

GARCIA: Branko Milanović, thanks so much.

MILANOVIĆ: Thank you very much. It was always a pleasure to be here.


GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan. It was fact-checked by Maddie Foley (ph). Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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