Socioeconomic Patterns of Marriage and Divorce

Key Points

  • U.S. divorce rates remain high and the post-1970s marriage decline is continuing.
  • The marriage decline is concentrated among those with fewer years of education.
  • Low earnings and job insecurity induces single-parenthood with negative side effects on children.

Socioeconomic Patterns of Marriage and Divorce


“I don’t know if I ever will get married. And I’m okay with that. I don’t feel like I need anything to complete me. I don’t really plan on getting married: I… I might. I definitely want to be a mother.”

       Actress Jennifer Lawrence, ABC interview with Diane Sawyer, 11/25, 2013.

Ms. Lawrence is among the foremost actresses of her generation and her opinions and choices in many spheres are likely to be trend setting. But with regards to marriage and family formation, she is simply reflecting social trends already underway in America. Divorce rates in America remain relatively high and family formation through marriage is declining.

Traditionally, marriage and family formation went hand in hand. When married families are the norm of social organization, family dissolution, when it happens, is a natural and expected outcome. It is mostly driven by the attainment of adulthood and independence by children and deaths among older adults. And this type of family dissolution is naturally offset as offsprings form their own married families.

During the post-World War II period, however, family dissolution through divorce accelerated, family formation through marriage declined, and alternative family structures emerged and became more prevalent. In 2014, almost half of all adults did not live with a spouse compared to about one third in 1967.1 Less than 70 percent of children younger than the age of 18 lived with two-parents compared to 90 percent in 1960. And 18 percent of white children and 51 percent of black children lived only with their mothers.2 The questions of whether and by how much these social changes will adversely affect the economic prospects of the next American generation have motivated many researchers in economics and sociology. An exploration of the factors underlying higher divorce rates and reduced marriage rates reveals differing patterns of change among different socioeconomic groups.

The Postwar Increase in Divorce and Decrease in Marriage

Figure 1: Divorce Rate of Females by Age and Birth Year

Source: PWBM calculations from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID).

Figure 2: Marriage Incidence Rate of Females by Age and Birth Year

Source: PWBM calculations from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID).

Figure 1 shows that divorce rates increased considerably during the postwar period, especially among younger married couples.3 And Figure 2 shows that marriage formation rates decreased among young adults aged 18-25, reflecting marriage postponement.

Nobel Laureate Gary Becker pioneered the field of family economics. He proposed that gains of marriage come from specialization of labor, where one spouse is in charge of homemaking and childrearing while the other is dedicated to the labor market.4 However, technological advances have reduced the returns of such intra-family specialization.5 Since the 1960s, changes in reproductive technology have continued to deliver greater control over the timing of childbirth. It opened vast new possibilities in education and career development for women, who could now prioritize goals other than marriage and childbearing during young adulthood.6 Furthermore, advances in home-production technology reduced the physical demands of domestic tasks and enabled much domestic work to be shifted onto the market sphere.7

Public policies may also have contributed to the increase in divorce rates and reductions in marriages. ‘No-fault’ and unilateral divorce laws have been adopted in many states, possibly inducing more couples to divorce.8 In addition, changes in social norms and greater acceptance of cohabitation and single parenthood may have contributed to the decline in marriage prevalence in America over time.9

Figure 3: Marriage Incidence Rate of Females by Education and Birth Year: Age 18-25

Source: PWBM calculations from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID).

Figure 4: Marriage Incidence Rate of Females by Education and Birth Year: Age 26-35

Source: PWBM calculations from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID).

More striking changes in marriage patterns are evident across educational subgroups. A socioeconomic divide appears to be growing across education groups in family formation through marriage. As Figure 3 shows, marriage rates have declined for females aged 18-25 compared to their counterparts born earlier among those with high education levels.10 That is, highly educated females of recent cohorts are likely to postpone marriage to acquire more education and promote their careers. Figure 4 shows that marriage rates have also declined among less-educated women aged 26-35. The figure also shows that the opposite is true for women with high education in this age group, indicating that marriage postponement when young is followed by marriage catch up.

Figure 5: Marriage Prevalence Rate of Females by Education and Birth Year: Age 36-50

Source: PWBM calculations from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID).

Figure 6: Marriage Prevalence Rate of Males by Education and Birth Year: Age 36-50

Source: PWBM calculations from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID).

Indeed, as Figure 5 shows, marriage prevalence rates are higher for better-educated females aged 36-50 born in the postwar period. It is noteworthy that among females born before 1945, marriage prevalence rates are lowest for those with a college degree or more. Figure 6 shows that for males aged 36-50, marriage prevalence rates have declined for those in lower education groups but have remained stable for those with a college degree. The gap between marriage rates across educational subgroups has become larger among recent cohorts.

Whom to Marry?

A distinct trend is also emerging in mating patterns. Marriages are becoming more intensely assortative — the inclination to marry a similar partner — especially with respect to those with college degrees and high education levels. For example, while 55 percent of males with college degrees were married to females with similar qualifications in 1995, that percentage increased to 68 by 2013. Advances in educational attainment by women and, therefore, the greater availability of educated women may explain this shift in assortative mating patterns.11

Studies indicate a positive association between marital status and
economic, social, and health outcomes of individuals and their children. For instance, married persons are likely to live longer and experience healthier lifestyles than those who do not marry.12 Thus, given the emerging pattern of increasingly assortative marriages, favorable outcomes related to marital status may be expected to be increasingly segregated and concentrated among those with higher education levels.

Marriage and Children

Studies also show that children reared by a single parent do not fare as well as those reared in two-parent families, on average, regardless of race, education, or parental remarriage. The former are more likely to experience increased academic difficulties and higher levels of emotional, psychological, and behavioral problems.13 The children of mothers who were never married have incomes during adulthood that are about $21,000 less than the children of continuously married mothers.14 Children of married parents enjoy physically and mentally healthier lifestyles because of larger parental resources (income, assets, and time availability), parental mental health, parental relationship qualities, parenting quality and involvement in children’s upbringing.15

It is noteworthy that the outcomes for married parents and their children, although clearly associated with parental marital status, may not necessarily be caused by that status. That is because it is difficult to control for selection into married status: The factors that obstruct marriage may also be the ones that could negatively affect outcomes of children and parents. That is, marital status and economic and social outcomes may both result from other factors that are difficult to clearly identify. However, whether or not the positive outcomes mentioned above are truly the results of marriage, studies indicate that marital status may provide valid and observable demarcation of social classes by their likely economic and social outcomes.

The pattern of an increasing class divide by marital status seems puzzling, since females with relatively more education are the ones with newly equipped skills and career opportunities, and therefore have fewer incentives to marry. One possible explanation is that the increase in out-of-wedlock births is a response to the increased state support to single mothers.16 However, the continued decline in marriage prevalence among less-educated women after the major welfare reform of the mid-1990s, appears to refute that explanation.17 Another explanation of the class divide in marriages is the declining number of marriageable men in inner-city neighborhoods from deteriorating economic prospects for less-educated men.18 Cross-country comparisons appear to confirm that greater economic inequality by educational attainment leads to more marriage prevalence among better-educated compared to less-educated men.19


Micro-surveys suggest that an overwhelming majority of Americans wish to marry regardless of their economic status.20 But they may face major barriers such as job instability and increasing social dysfunction among potential partners, for instance, psychological instability, drug abuse, and involvement in criminal activity.21 A growing class divide in marriages erodes economic opportunities and increases inequality across households. Such inequality is also more likely to be perpetuated as children in married families are more likely to become economically successful and to adopt parental behaviours in family formation. Policies that promote broader economic opportunities and reduce unemployment, crime, and prison entrance would likely increase family formation and reduce inequality among younger and future generations.22

  1. The percentage of adults 18 and over living with spouse were 51.7% in 2014 and 70.3% in 1967. Retrieved from the U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 1967-2015, available at:  ↩

  2. The percentage of children under 18 years old living with two parents were 87.7% in 1960 and 68.7% in 2014. Children living with their mothers were 6% for white children and 20% for black children in 1960. Retrieved from the U.S. Census Bureau Decimal Census (1960), Current Population Survey and Annual Social and Economic Supplement (1968-2015).  ↩

  3. Figures 1-6 are based on PPI calculations from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), Marriage History File: 1985-2013. The survey includes retrospect information on respondents’ first and most recent marriages.  ↩

  4. Gary S. Becker, A Treatise on the Family (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).  ↩

  5. Shelly Lundberg and Robert A. Pollak, “The American Family and Family Economics,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 21, no. 2 (2007): 3–26, available at:  ↩

  6. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, “The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women’s Career and Marriage Decisions,” Journal of Political Economy 110, no.4 (2002): 730–770, available at:  ↩

  7. Jeremy Greenwood, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu, “Engines of Liberation,” Review of Economic Studies 72, no.1 (January 2005): 109-133, available at:  ↩

  8. Several discussions regarding divorce laws and other forces in marital patterns are found in: Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and Their Driving Forces,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 21, no. 2 (2007): 27-52, available at:  ↩

  9. Andrew J. Cherlin, “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and Family 66, no. 4 (November 2004): 848-861, available at:  ↩

  10. For Figures 3-6: Categorization based on the final level of educational attainment instead of the ongoing level of education.  ↩

  11. A similar shift is not visible in the educational attainment among the spouses of females according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey. More discussions and documentations of trends in assortative mating by educational attainment are presented in: Christine R. Schwartz and Robert D. Mare, “Trends in Educational Assortative Marriage from 1940 to 2003,” Demography 42, no. 4 (November 2005): 621-646, available at:  ↩

  12. Judith P. M. Soons et al., “The Long-Term Consequences of Relationship Formation for Subjective Well-Being,” Journal of Marriage and Family 71, no. 5 (December 2009): 1254-1270, available at:  ↩

  13. John F. Ermisch and Marco Francesconi, “Family Structure and Children’s Achievements,” Journal of Population Economics 14, no. 2 (June 2001): 249-270, available at:; Marcia J. Carlson and Mary E. Corcoran, “Family Structure and Children’s Behavioral and Cognitive Outcomes,” Journal of Marriage and Family 63, no. 3 (August 2001): 779-792, available at:; Marianne E. Page and Ann Huff Stevens, “The Economic Consequences of Absent Parents,” Journal of Human Resources 39, no. 1 (2004): 80-104, available at:  ↩

  14. See Leonard M. Lopoo and Thomas DeLeire, “Family Structure and the Economic Wellbeing of Children in Youth and Adulthood,” Social Science Research 43 (January 2014): 30-44, available at: Based on intergenerational information available in PSID, this regression controls for race and education of mothers. This research further finds that the effect of family structure is no longer significant once one controls for the resources available to the child when young. However, many studies still find undiminished influence of family structure on child’s educational and health outcomes, even after controlling for other factors, see for example: Sara McLanahan, Laura Tach, and Daniel Schneider, “The Causal Effects of Father Absence,” Annual Review of Sociology 39, (July 2013): 399-427, available at:  ↩

  15. David C. Ribar, “Why Marriage Matters for Child Wellbeing,” The Future of Children 25, no. 2 (2015): 11-27, available at:; Jane Waldfogel, Terry-Ann Craigie, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, “Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing,” The Future of Children 20, no. 2 (2010): 87-112, available at:  ↩

  16. Charles A. Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984).  ↩

  17. Edin and Kefalas, 2005  ↩

  18. William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: Columbia University Press, 1987).  ↩

  19. Matthijs Kalmijn, “The Education Gradient in Marriage: A Comparison of 25 European Countries,” Demography 50, no. 4 (August 2013): 1499-1520, available at: doi: 10.1007/s13524-013-0229-x.  ↩

  20. Frank Newport and Joy Wilke, “Most in U.S. Want Marriage, but its Importance Has Dropped,” Gallup, last modified August 2013, available at:  ↩

  21. See “Barriers to Marriage Among Fragile Families,” Fragile Families Research Brief, no. 13, (May 2003) available at:  ↩

  22. June Carbone and Cahn Naomi, Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009).  ↩

Birth year,18-35,36-50,51-80
Birth year,18-25,26-35,36-50,51-80
Birth year,Less than high school,"More than high school, no college degree",College degree or more
Birth year,Less than high school,"More than high school, no college degree",College degree or more
Birth year,Less than high school,"More than high school, no college degree",College degree or more
Birth year,Less than high school,"More than high school, no college degree",College degree or more