The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Immigration and Marriage Rates

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Theodore Roosevelt warned a century ago that if Americans fail to bear enough children, the nation would end up importing her babies. What TR didn’t perceive is that high levels of immigration, according to Thomas Cvrcek of Clemson University, depress marriage rates.

In seeking to explain why U.S. marriage rates have declined, Cvrcek sees the reversal since the 1960s of earlier demographic and economic patterns that had led to “exceptional times” that included early and nearly universal marriage in mid-twentieth century America. Among the earlier demographic patterns he cites is the dramatic decline in immigration between the end of World War One and 1965. According to the economist, high levels of immigration between the 1880s and the first decade of the twentieth century had fragmented the marriage market and increased the “search costs” of finding a desirable spouse. But as the stream of newcomers dried up and immigrants and their children integrated into American society, search costs declined and contributed to increased rates of marriage and a lowering of the age of first marriage.

Yet a more important factor of mid-twentieth century exceptionalism may be economic patterns, particularly in job prospects and earnings for men, that increased at the same time that immigration was declining. Relying upon the Occupational Score Index (OCCSCORE) of the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) of Census data, Cvrcek finds that men were climbing the occupational ladder significantly faster in 1930 than they had in 1880. In weighing a number of variables related to marriage patterns, the OCCSCORE emerged as “the most pervasive factor and one with considerable explanatory power,” as the variable is a “particularly strong determinant of marriage for both blacks and whites, and for men and women alike.”

As the professor explains, “The changes in American society at the beginning of the 20th century were such that both men and women found their part of the process of courtship getting easier from decade to decade. Men could find a suitable match among women faster and, with their standing in the labor market improving, women found the option of marriage more acceptable. These new trends were set to continue, until they were yet again upset in the 1960s.”

While Cvrcek does not explore the relationship between low levels of immigration and enhanced male job prospects, his findings nonetheless suggest that both factors may be necessary for a recovery of marriage in our time.

(Thomas Cvrcek, “America’s Settling Down: How Better Jobs and Falling Immigration Led to a Rise in Marriage, 1880–1930,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 16161, July 2010.)