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 

Summer
2013

Trying to Account for the Marriage Premium


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


Researchers are continually awed by the concept of the marriage premium—the wage increase that occurs after marriage, particularly for men. Most cite “specialization” as the most likely cause. When a couple marries, the individual partners divide duties in such a way as to increase the wife’s share of household duties, thus allowing the husband more time for paid labor. Alexandra Killewald and Margaret Gough, researchers from Harvard, seek to study the marriage premium more rigorously to determine likely causes. Specifically, they hypothesize that if specialization is indeed the reason that men tend to earn more after marriage, specialization should also cause women to earn less.

Using data from the 1979-2008 waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the researchers used fixed-effects models that control for selection and test the data in various ways. One model estimates the “total relationship between family status change and wages,” the so-called Total Effect. The second controls for time-use specialization (hours worked and labor market experience) so as to study the “mediating role of employment hours.” The third model “tests the mediating role of job traits and tenure,” thus “further narrowing the gender gap in the marriage premium.”

The results of all three models demonstrate that even childless married couples seem to specialize in duties, though to a lesser extent than do married couples. The data indicate that for men, specialization does indeed explain wage increases: “Changes in men’s employment hours, job traits, and tenure associated with marriage and married fatherhood explain a portion of these wage gains.” The researchers highlight that although specialization at least partly explains the effect on men’s wages, it does not account for the changes in women’s wages: “Marriage and cohabitation are associated with wage gains for childless women, not wage losses as predicted by specialization. . . . Furthermore, if anything, marriage alters women’s employment hours, job traits, and tenure in ways beneficial to their wages.”

Killewald and Gough conclude by calling for further research, as specialization does not, in fact, entirely explain the marriage premium, particularly for women. They speculate that men may earn more than women at marriage because “transitions to marriage and married parenthood may encourage men’s sense of responsibility,” whereas “single women already possess these positive traits or because gendered norms of family behavior place less emphasis on financial providership for women.” Whatever the reason, the results are clear: Marriage is related to an increase in wages, for both husbands and wives.

(Alexandra Killewald and Margaret Gough, “Does Specialization Explain Marriage Penalties and Premiums?” American Sociological Review 78.3 [2013]: 477-502.)

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