Marriage 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.