Friday, July 7, 2017

A shortage of marriageable men doesn't explain the marriage bust

Five percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers in 1960. Fast forward now — to 2014.
MELISSA KEARNEY: In 2014, over 40 percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers.
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It’s really hard for researchers to establish the causal effect of family structure or marriage on kids’ outcomes, of course, because we don’t randomly assign kids to married or unmarried parents. But there’s a lot of research that works really hard to isolate factors. That research consistently shows that kids who live with two married parents have lower rates of poverty, have higher cognitive test scores in childhood, have fewer behavioral problems. They seem to have better health outcomes. They’re less likely to live in poverty when they’re 25. They’re more likely to complete college and they’re less likely to become young, unmarried parents themselves.
...what accounts for so many more unmarried births among mothers with less education? Social conservatives tend to point to the breakdown of old-school social norms. Social liberals cite less access to contraception — although that has improved a lot; and, especially, the lack of economic opportunity — that is, men without good jobs aren’t eager to marry or, from the other end of the equation, they aren’t considered good husband material. In Melissa Kearney’s world, this is called the “marriageable men” theory.
KEARNEY: Yeah. That’s based on this idea that’s been around since William Julius Wilson’s really seminal work in the 1980s arguing that this decline in the economic security of less-educated men — and in certain populations or demographic groups in particular — is behind this rise in nonmarital childbearing and retreat from marriage.
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And so, hypothesizing the reverse, I’ve been keen to find a situation where we’ve seen an improvement in less-educated men’s economic situation, and the fracking boom constitutes the rare context where men without a college degree have seen an improvement in their employment and earnings prospects in recent years. That gave us a place to look at how family formation outcomes responded.
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The fracking boom, these localized fracking booms, really meets our standard in the sense that it’s determined by pre-existing geological formations in the earth. Even the most persnickety economists will tend to grant that whether there is this geological formation under your county is probably exogenous to family formation preferences.
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What our estimates suggest is that an additional $1,000 of fracking production per capita is associated with an increase of six births per thousand women. ...
One of the most interesting things in our research was a comparison to the coal boom and bust situation. It’s a similar economic shock. It’s a similar industry. They’re in similar areas: the Appalachian region in both.
The coal boom and bust happened in the 70s and 80s. What we find is that a 10 percent increase in earnings associated with the coal boom led to very similar-sized increases in married birth rates, as it did in the fracking boom: an 8 percent increase in marital birth rates for a 10 percent increase in earnings with the coal boom, and a 12 percent increase in married birth rates associated with the fracking boom. But the nonmarital birth response is very different: a 10 percent increase in earnings associated with the coal boom actually led to a reduction in nonmarital births. But a 12 percent increase in nonmarital births with a 10 percent increase in earnings associated with fracking. That’s where the response differed.
In the earlier period, when earnings increased associated with the coal boom, marriage increased. And as we’ve been saying, there’s no increase with the fracking boom. ...
In the 70s and 80s, very few births were outside of marriage and there was a social stigma associated with nonmarried births. And so, in the 70s and 80s, when you got more income, it looks like you had more births but only if you were married. Now, we’re at a period where nonmarital births are extremely common among less-educated populations. Now, what we see is if you get more income you have more babies. Right? But it doesn’t matter whether you’re married or not. That’s a real difference.
--Freakonomics Radio on the importance of norms