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 

Hard-Working Husbands

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

To account for the sharp drop in the American marriage rate, some sociologists have suggested that young men have become unattractive marriage partners because they have failed to secure lucrative employment. The authors of a new study, however, turn this argument on its head as they explore the possibility that “causation may run from marriage to earnings.” That is, the income of young American men may have stagnated in part because of “the absence of marriage and its stabilizing influence.”

Conducted by economists from American University and Haifa University, the study adduces considerable evidence that marriage results in a “positive effect on men’s motivation [in the labor market],” producing behaviors that “signal reliability to employers.” Analyzing data collected between 1979 and 2004 from a national probability sample of 6,403 men, the researchers limn an “especially striking” link between wedlock and men’s commitment to gainful labor. “Entry into marriage,” these scholars report, “is associated with 262 more hours of work per year relative to the remaining never-married men.” Nor is the labor-producing effect of wedlock a mere flash in the pan evident only during the first year after nuptials: remaining married predicts 155 more hours of work per year than being never married.

On the other hand, the researchers find—to their acknowledged astonishment—“divorce lowers hours worked belowthe level among never-married men.” “Perhaps,” the analysts conjecture, “divorce leaves men with less ambition than even never-married men.”

The researchers stress that the labor-enhancing efforts of marriage show up even among men generally regarded as economically handicapped. Looking specifically at African-Americans, at men who have performed poorly on standardized tests, and at young men, the researchers find that the labor-enhancing effects of wedlock run “as high or higher [for these three groups] than the effects for all men in the sample, with the highest at 255 hours per year among black men.”

Nor does marriage simply motivate men to work more hours. Statistical analysis reveals “a 12% wage gain upon entry into marriage and an 18% gain in continuing marriage, relative to remaining never married.” Once again, this favorable effect upon men’s employment shows up “in statistically significant and quantitatively similar ways for subgroups with low expected wage rates [namely, African-Americans, men with low standardized test scores, and young men].” Of course, part of the wage increase reflects the raises that naturally come to those who give their employers a lot of hours.

The researchers emphasize that “marriage effects of these magnitudes are large; they are equivalent to earnings gains associated with 2-3 years of schooling.” What is more, these are long-lasting effects: “Far from withering away . . . the marriage wage rate premium remains substantial.”

These positive effects of wedlock fit within a larger pattern clearly visible to the researchers as they survey a constellation of other studies “indicating that marriage yields such benefits as better health, lower crime, and reduced domestic violence.” Strategies for fostering wedlock clearly merit support from anyone seeking to improve young men’s economic—and non-economic—well-being.

(Avner Ahituv and Robert I. Lerman, “How Do Marital Status, Work Effort, and Wage Rates Interact?” Demography 44 [2007]: 623–47, emphasis added.)