Marriage and inequality

After first denying that substantial and persistent inequality exists, and then briefly trying to say it does not matter, conservatives have now arrived at a third approach to the topic: blame inequality on the decline of marriage. Charles Murray wrote a book partly about marriage and inequality, David Brooks started peppering his columns with the idea, and the NY Times published a long Sunday piece about it. Here, I look at cross-country OECD data to interrogate the claim that low marriage rates lead to more inequality.

First, let’s look at inequality. Below, I have graphed the Gini coefficient, a standard inequality metric, for 34 OECD countries. The countries on the top have lower household inequality than the countries on the bottom.

Now, let’s look at marriage rates. Below is a graph of cross-country crude marriage rates. Notice which countries have the highest marriage rates, and see if they are also the countries with the lowest inequality in the above graph (spoiler: they aren’t). Also notice that marriage rates have declined in every single country except for one. We are seeing a very widespread trend away from marriages across the entire OECD, not just the United States.

When you plot countries’ marriage rates against their Gini coefficients, there is simply no relationship which points towards more marriage leading to more equality. If you do a linear regression, the line actually slightly slopes in the opposite direction: the higher the marriage rate, the higher the inequality. But it’s not a significant relationship, and even if it were, no one could seriously argue a causal connection between the two.

Although a crude method, this plot does provide some insight. If higher rates of marriage generally reduced inequality, you’d expect that the further right you went on the graph, the lower the dots would be. That just isn’t what shows up. Whatever drives inequality, it certainly is not low marriage rates. Other countries have shown that it is very possible to have low marriage rates and low inequality.

Conceptually, it is absurd to even suggest that declining marriage rates drive inequality. If marriage rates were declining, and inequality was rising as a result, we should ascribe the rise in inequality to the failure of institutions to adjust to the new household formation norms. If our institutions of income distribution do not meet our equality aims due to household formation behavior, we should change the institutions of income distribution, not tell everyone to change their household formation behavior.

The brute fact is that individuals across the entire OECD have increasingly expressed a preference against marriage. Many countries with lower marriage rates do not have extreme inequality problems, while many countries with higher marriage rates do. Ultimately — even ignoring the weak empirical support for the marriage argument — there is never any reason why shifting marriage norms should generate more inequality, unless of course we allow it to do so.