Economists have long argued that marriage rates are lower in poorer and less well-educated areas because men in those communities aren't good financial bets. Without steady incomes, they can't reliably contribute to a household, so while women might have children with them, they won't commit to men for life. That's been the assumption, anyway.
Fracking booms gave two researchers in the Economics Department at the University of Maryland, College Park, a perfect chance to test the hypothesis. What happens when money pours into a place, enriching the men, specifically, and giving them good jobs? More of them will get married, right?
As they discovered, to their surprise, the answer is no.
Melissa S. Kearney and Riley Wilson published their findings in a new paper covered by the Washington Post that concludes, "there is no evidence of an increase in marriage rates. The pattern of results is consistent with positive income effects on births, but no associated increase in marriage."
In other words, fracking money made more men dad-material, but it didn't make them husband-material.
Though in more conservative parts of the country like Appalachia, infusions of steady jobs for men in the 1970s and 80s led to more marriages and then more children born in wedlock, the Washington Post reports, this time, though fracking-related wealth produced a localized baby boom, there wasn't a corresponding boom in marriages.
Kearney tells the Post, "There was a different response this time, and it's sobering," adding, "The commitment to childbearing with marriage in the 70s and 80s is just no longer there."
The decline in marriage rates in the working class has been going on for long enough now that, in 2012, The New York Times printed a column titled, "Marriage is for rich people." It concludes, "Rich men are marrying rich women, creating doubly rich households for them and their children. And the poor are staying poor and alone." 40 percent of all babies now are born to single moms or to unmarried partners.
That can be rough on families for numerous reasons. Pooling resources can make many aspects of life easier, from affording a home to being involved at school. Coupling up also helps people stay healthier and live longer, especially men.
Staying single can be a better bet for women, though, many of whom appreciate having more flexibility in terms of how to structure their personal lives than they did several decades ago. Sociology professor Pepper Schwartz writes, "Women now have choices that allow them to customize the arc of their lives and some of them find that it is best for them to put marriage aside." Husbands who are "nonworking, noninvolved," she points out, can be "useless."
Schwartz concludes that, now that they generally have economic and cultural freedom, women no longer are willing to settle: "While most women still want marriage, they don't want it at just any price. They don't want it if it scuttles their dreams."
A lengthy article in Yes! Magazine makes the case that this is both a logical and positive development for women overall. And that assessment seems to be shared by popular recent TV shows ranging from the sweet (CW's "Gilmore Girls," whose four-episode epilogue was released in 2016 on Netflix) to the salty (HBO's "Girls," which just finished its six-season run). Despite their differences in tone, both shows foreground a version of success for their heroines that has a lot to do with individual fulfillment and little to do with marriage.
That said, affluent, professional women usually have an easier time being single by choice, and two-parent households, which tend to have more time as well as more money, have been shown to be good for kids. "Children whose mothers are continuously married grow up to make higher incomes at age 40 than children raised at some point by single parents," reports the Post. "Children with married parents also have more engaged parents, and it's the engagement that really matters."
Given that the Times also finds that "the sharp rise in single-parent families has contributed to sky-high inequality," many economists have struggled to figure out how to induce working-class couples to marry. But if a steady income doesn't make a man marriageable anymore, what does?
Well, larger religious and cultural expectations can help. But education certainly seems to help most, possibly because it speaks to a person's long-term job prospects and earning potential.
Kearney and Wilson say as much in their intro, noting, "non-marital childbearing has become the norm among young mothers and mothers with low levels of education." And according to the Times, states with high rates of education also tend to produce stable families: In "Minnesota, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut, at least 51 percent of teenagers are being raised by both biological parents, among the highest rates in the nation."
If you want your son to be marriageable one day, tell him to stay in school now.