A new report released by W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert Lerman at the American Enterprise Institute suggests that more marriage is a possible solution to income inequality.
“For richer, for poorer: How family structures economic success in America” makes the case that growing income inequality, and many of the economic problems faced by low income Americans, can be helped by promoting marriage as a means to a more stable economic situation.
Young people who come from two-parent households are better off economically than their peers from single-parent households, according to the report. Also, “men obtain a substantial ‘marriage premium’ and women bear no marriage penalty in their individual incomes, and both men and women enjoy substantially higher family incomes, compared to peers with otherwise similar characteristics.”
This may be true, but it’s a silly distraction from the real problems in our economy.
The idea that marriage is somehow a ticket out of poverty — pushed hard by this report — is deeply problematic. The data between single parenthood and poverty is correlated, but there’s no way to prove causation. It’s just as likely that growing inequality has caused stress in the lives of middle and low income people which has caused the decline in marriage (in addition to, you know, the growing cultural acceptance of women to have agency over their own lives).
It’s also problematic in its implication that growing inequality is somehow something that poor people have created for themselves through changing cultural norms. Let’s look at this chart from Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman’s Vox EU post from earlier this week on rising wealth inequality. The share of wealth held by the top 0.1% in the US — which hasn’t seen much in the way of changes to the family structure — has skyrocketed in exactly the time period that Wilcox and Lerman are linking marriage to income inequality.
This has nothing to do with family structure. It has to do with asset structure (and tax policy structure). Saez and Zacman find that “the combination of higher income inequality alongside a growing disparity in the ability to save for most Americans is fuelling the explosion in wealth inequality.”
Sure, dual incomes allow of efficiencies that would probably allow for greater saving (although also greater mortgage debt, another issue that Saez and Zacman point to as problematic). But talking about forcing unions on people instead of addressing the drivers of income inequality is a waste of time.