If it’s universally acknowledged that a single man with a good fortune needs a wife, the American economy may be now illustrating the inverse of that corollary: Poor men with dwindling job prospects are going to lack marriage prospects.
The decline of the institution of marriage has been studied by social scientists and policymakers, but new economic research from MIT economics professor David Autor and his colleagues points to labor issues that helped Donald Trump win the presidential election: The decline of American manufacturing and the rise of Chinese imports.
As manufacturing jobs dried up over the last few decades, blue-collar men have suffered from lower income, fewer job opportunities and the increased likelihood of risky behavior, which in turn has hurt their marriage prospects, Autor and his co-authors wrote in a paper published at the National Bureau of Economic research.
Trade shocks to the manufacturing sector are “particularly destabilizing to marriage-markets,” they wrote, although they caution that heightened trade competition from China isn’t the sole or even the main catalyst for the trends.
“Trade shocks reduce the availability and desirability of potentially marriageable young men along multiple dimensions,” wrote Autor and his co-authors, David Dorn of University of Zurichand and Gordon Hanson of University of California, San Diego.
It’s not only that young working-class men are less marriageable when jobs dry up, but that some of these men are actually disappearing, the paper noted. When Chinese imports take a greater share of trade, the ratio of young men to women declines by 1.7 percentage points, they found. The study examined population shifts in commuting zones, or the 722 regions that cover the continental U.S. and represent a regional economic area.
Where are these young men going? Many are turning to risky behaviors such as heavy drinking and drug use. Trade shocks are leading to higher mortality rates for young men, which explains some -- but not all -- of the imbalance. Young men are also disappearing because they’re incarcerated, homeless or migrating to other areas to find better job opportunities.
The research doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but it’s one that may be familiar to many Americans in rural areas or in cities that once relied on manufacturing. Rustbelt cities and rural regions are struggling to cope with a rise in opioid addictions, such as the record-breaking 52 overdoses in Louisville, Kentucky, in 32 hours earlier this month.
Drug use is also taking a toll on middle-age Americans. Two years ago, research from Princeton professors Angus Deaton and Anne Case grabbed headlines with their finding that white middle-age Americans are dying at higher rates because of suicide, addiction, liver disease and other afflictions.
While the cause isn’t clear, some economists believe it’s tied to fewer economic opportunities for white, blue-collar Americans. One clue that supports a link to dwindling job prospects and lower incomes is that the mortality spike affected white, middle-age Americans with high-school degrees or less, while college-educated workers saw lower death rates.
Since the recession, incomes for college grads have recovered, while less-educated Americans have seen their incomes decline 3 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The income gap between college grads and high school grads now stands at 56 percent, the widest since 1973, the EPI found.
That meshes with the problems facing younger American men who lack college degrees. In 1990, more than 17 percent of men between 18 to 39 worked in manufacturing, but by 2007 that had declined to about 11 percent, Autor and his co-researchers found. Fewer job opportunities reduce “the supply of young men who would likely be judged as good marital prospects,” they noted.
While more Americans are getting married later or even skipping marriage altogether, another trend has emerged in the last few decades: the so-called marriage gap. This phenomenon dovetails with education as college grads not only enjoy more income but more successful marriages.
College-educated Americans are today more likely to be married than their counterparts with less education, at 65 percent to 53 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Women with college degrees are more likely to have successful marriages, with almost 8 out of 10 in marriages lasting 20 years or more, compared with just 4 out of 10 marriages for women with high school diplomas.
Whether President Trump can make good on his promise to revive American manufacturing is debatable. Many economists point to headwinds from automation as reducing the likelihood that factory jobs will return in force.
Interestingly, lower-income workers are the most worried that their jobs will disappear because of automation, according to a new survey of 2,000 American adults from tech company LivePerson. It also found that Americans largely believe that factory workers are most at risk to lose their jobs to automation within 20 years, followed by store cashiers.
While Mr. Trump pledges he’ll bring back manufacturing, it appears many workers aren’t as convinced his plans will materialize.