BOOK REVIEW: Carbone and Cahn’s Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family

Marriage Markets 01Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family. By June Carbone and Naomi Cahn (published by Oxford University Press May 2014).

Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family, just out from Oxford University Press, is a sweeping chronicle of the intersection of family demographics and family law—and the ways in which class divides matter.

June Carbone, the Robina Chair in Law, Science, and Technology at the University of Minnesota Law School, and Naomi Cahn, the Harold H. Greene Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School, argue that “marriage [is] a defining element in the class divide remaking America.” The central premise of Marriage Markets is an explanation of how the top and bottom economic classes are spinning in different directions in terms of family formation. Carbone and Cahn argue that increasing income inequality influences the markets for marriage. In the top economic quintile, four out of five couples are married; in the bottom quintile, less than one in five couples are married.

Greater education and income is correlated with a later time of first marriage, and, Carbone and Cahn note that “one of the biggest changes in mating preferences since 1960 is that men care three times as much as they once did about the income of a potential mate.” Yet, the employment arena is changing for men—more highly educated men have gained economic ground, while those with just a high school education or in blue collar jobs have lost ground. In all but one group in American society, marriage rates have fallen. “The only group in American society whose marriage rates at ages 30-50 have grown are the top five percent of American women by income.” The nature of marriage is changing too. More married women have careers than in previous era; more men spend increased amounts of time on childcare and housework.

Carbone and Cahn describe these developments in terms of the concept of “marriage markets.” Many scholars from all political and philosophical persuasions object to the very idea of treating intimate relationships as something that should ever be the product of calculation or exchange. Yet, most also agree that supply and demand affect “price.” Carbone and Cahn add that sex ratio imbalances produce virtuous and vicious cycles that influence expectations, alter behavior, and ultimately transform cultural practices.   Sociologists Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord demonstrated in the eighties, in an influential book on sex ratios, Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, that relationships are in fact the product of a market. If the men outnumbered the women in a given group, Guttentag and Secord argued, men competed among each other to land the “best” women. Women in turn tend to select for some mix of worldly success and good behavior, so an excess of men tends to produce “virtuous cycles” in which men compete to satisfy women by working hard, remaining faithful, and investing in their children. The fact that men outnumber women among high earners eager to pair with each other, Carbone and Cahn argue, provides an explanation for why the marriage rates at the top have remained relatively stable and why divorce rates remain relatively low.

What happens if women outnumber men? The men could seek out higher status women and the women might compete to satisfy the men in a similar fashion to what happens in a market where men outnumber women. It turns out that isn’t what happens: men and women don’t react in the same ways when they are outnumbered in a given marriage market. Instead, men prefer more relationships than committed unions with partners who might outshine them, and the women become jaded by the men’s behavior. In the face of persistent disappointment with male behavior, their standards for an acceptable husband increase and they, too, become more reluctant to marry or to commit to a long-term relationship. The result tends to be what some would term a “vicious circle,” that is, a cultural shift toward greater promiscuity, more gender distrust, greater investment in women’s income opportunities and less in men’s, and fewer stable long term relationships.

Carbone and Cahn add to this the overlay of legal rules that also influence behavior.  Family law has become more egalitarian. If couples divorce, courts usually divide property accumulated during the marriage equally and rarely order alimony. Importantly, courts emphasize that custody orders now provide for significant time with the children for both parents; indeed, more than one-third of states have a presumption of joint custody. These changes reflect the model of marriage that guides couples at the top, but it’s a bad deal for women paired with men they do not trust. The meager resources that will be split at divorce are savings the women thought of as there for the children and these changes give men who never changed a diaper during the marriage significant ability to call the shots on child-raising if the couple later divorce.

The cumulative effect of these changes—increasing un- or under-employment for lower earning men, greater education and economic prospects for the top slice of women, and legal rules that move toward equal decision making about children in the event of divorce—are creating normative and resulting demographic shifts in family formation, and rates of marriage and nonmarital births. Familial patterns for the top 20 percent of the country look very different from those for the bottom 20 percent.

Woven throughout the book are the stories of composites of people Carbone and Cahn know: Amy and Tyler and Lily and Carl. Every piece of the stories happened to someone and their stories bring to life some of the surprising statistics. Throughout the book, Carbone and Cahn tie their theories about family classes and family law to the economic sphere as well.

At the end, they note that America has not yet created the infrastructure for the post-industrial era that would make the relationship between home and family more seamless and that, in an era of inequality, American companies have built in greater instability in employment that also undermines family stability, damaging any efforts to rebuild the home-family bridges. They offer a deceptively simple solution to diverging family patterns: fix economic inequality. They also recommend fixing the pathways to adulthood with proposals ranging from better pregnancy support to early childhood education through college and employment.

Marriage Markets is an important book for lawyers, sociologists, and anyone who cares about families in an era of increasing inequality.

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Nancy Levit is the Curator’s and Edward D. Ellison Professor of Law, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

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