Family Inequality: Diverging Patterns in Marriage, Cohabitation, and Childbearing

29 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2016 Last revised: 30 Apr 2021

See all articles by Shelly J. Lundberg

Shelly J. Lundberg

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB); IZA Institute of Labor Economics; University of Bergen - Department of Economics

Robert A. Pollak

Washington University in St. Louis - John M. Olin Business School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); CESifo (Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute); IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Jenna Stearns

University of California, Davis

Date Written: March 2016

Abstract

The last 60 years have seen the emergence of a dramatic socioeconomic gradient in marriage, divorce, cohabitation, and childbearing. The divide is between college graduates and others: those without four-year degrees have family patterns and trajectories very similar to those of high school graduates. We document these trends and show that, compared with college graduates, less-educated women are more likely to enter into cohabiting partnerships early and bear children while cohabiting, are less likely to transition quickly into marriage, and have much higher divorce rates. There are two broad sets of explanations for these differences. Conventional explanations focus on the diminished economic prospects of less-educated men. We propose an alternative explanation focusing on educational differences in demand for marital commitment. As the gains from traditional gender-based specialization have declined, the value of marriage has decreased relative to cohabitation, which offers many of the gains of co-residence with less commitment. We argue that college graduate parents use marriage as a commitment device to facilitate intensive joint investments in their children. For less educated couples for whom such investments are less desirable or less feasible, commitment and, hence, marriage has less value relative to cohabitation. The resulting socioeconomic divergence has implications for children and for future inequality.

Suggested Citation

Lundberg, Shelly J. and Pollak, Robert A. and Stearns, Jenna, Family Inequality: Diverging Patterns in Marriage, Cohabitation, and Childbearing (March 2016). NBER Working Paper No. w22078, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2747198

Shelly J. Lundberg (Contact Author)

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) ( email )

Santa Barbara, CA 93106
United States

IZA Institute of Labor Economics

P.O. Box 7240
Bonn, D-53072
Germany

University of Bergen - Department of Economics ( email )

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Norway

Robert A. Pollak

Washington University in St. Louis - John M. Olin Business School ( email )

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314-935-4918 (Phone)
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National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

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CESifo (Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute)

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Germany

IZA Institute of Labor Economics

P.O. Box 7240
Bonn, D-53072
Germany

Jenna Stearns

University of California, Davis ( email )

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Apt 153
Davis, CA 95616
United States

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