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Not All Marriages Are Created Equal

2:06 PM, Oct 9, 2013 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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While everyone else has spent the last few days obsessing about Gravity, the government shutdown, and the real possibility that the NFC East division champ will have six wins, it’s quietly been an interesting week for sociology nerds who think about marriage.

The first came in a post from Richard Reeves and Joanna Venator (reacting to a Derek Thompson essay at the Atlantic) over at Brookings. The three researchers all look at marriage and social mobility. and make a pretty convincing case that the obvious is probably true: The decline in marriage—especially among the non-elites—has contributed to the decline in social mobility we’ve seen in recent years.

As Reeves and Venator explain:

The rise in single mothers matters for income inequality. But it’s a concern for social mobility too. On this blog, we have highlighted the rising number of single mothers among twenty-somethings—and what it means for the future prospects and mobility of children. Children of married parents have better life outcomes, in terms of education, health, and income—in large part because they have more resources available to them.

Thompson focuses briefly on what he calls the “marriage gap,” or what academics inelegantly call “assortative mating.” This signals the tendency of like to marry like: those who are college educated and high-earning marry each other; and those with less education and less income marry each other (if they marry at all).

Brookings has examined the role of assortative mating in the context of economic mobility and gender. One reason women stay in the income brackets of their parents is that they marry someone from a similar background: the earnings of a married woman’s husband bear as much resemblance to her parents’ income as her own earnings.

Marriage, then, becomes another mechanism through which advantage is protected and passed on. Affluent, committed parents tend to get married, stay married, and raise their children together. Indeed, this is arguably now the main social purpose of marriage. As women have advanced in the workplace, the rationale for marriage has become about child-rearing, not income-sharing.

So, marriage is important for the social mobility of adults and their children. Good to know.

But it turns out that not all marriages are created equal. You can forgive Mark Regnerus for his nearly gleeful tone in the other big piece, a dissection of the study by Douglas Allen in the new Review of Economics of the Household. (You can read Regnerus’s Public Discourse piece here; the actual journal article will run you $40, but it’s worth it, here.)

Allen’s study is pretty powerful because he uses a giant sample-set: the 20 percent sample from the 2006 Canadian census, which looks at the educational outcomes for children raised by gay couples, versus single parents, versus heterosexual couples.

This is the most significant study done by a large margin. In previous studies looking at outcomes, the number of gay couples examined has typically been in the double digits. Since 1995, only ten attempts to study these outcomes have had a sample bigger than 100, the biggest of these being a 2010 study with 3,502 gay couples. Allen’s sample winds up much more than twice as big.

What Allen examined was high school graduation rates for children living in a household with same-sex parents versus married, opposite sex parents. (In Canada, same-sex couples have had all the benefits of marriage since 1997 and actual gay marriage since 2005.) As Regnerus summarizes, “the study is able to compare—side by side—the young-adult children of same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples, as well as children growing up in single-parent homes and other types of households.”

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