The Great Recession and Marriage Rates

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
December 16, 2011

Several stories have appeared recently about the Pew Research Center's study on declining marriage rates in America (see here and here for examples). Based on analysis of U.S. Census data, the study finds that barely half of all adults in the U.S. are currently married—a record low. While the report does not discuss the causes behind the trend (a long-term one that has also been seen in other industrialized countries), some have asked what role the Great Recession may play in couples' decisions to delay their wedding days.

As part of its special initiative on the Great Recession, the Russell Sage Foundation published a study entitled "The Great Recession's Influence on Fertility, Marriage, Divorce and Cohabitation." Here's the key paragraph on marriage:

Figure 8.6 (below) shows the marriage rate since 1998. Since the start of the Great recession, the marriage rate has declined, but that rate was already declining prior to the recession. Contrary to some accounts in the media, there seems to be no major inflexion of the trend in the Great Recession "window" (shaded area in the figure)...We find little evidence of major recession effects on marriage. Further analysis with future data will be able to answer this question with greater precision.

The chapter also includes excellent data on the effects of unemployment and fertility. Do couples postpone births because of a stagnant economy?

Figure 8.2 (below) provides the first piece of evidence—a focus on monthly levels of the General Fertility Rate compared to the unemployment rate nine months earlier. Changes in these indicators show a clear inverse association; increases in unemployment (a near doubling from roughly 4.5 to 9 percent) are associated with fertility declines of approximately 5 percent (GFR declines from apprxoimately 69 to 65 births per 1000 women aged 15 to 49). The upturn in unemployment is matched closely by a fertility downturn roughly nine months later.

For more information, buy a copy of The Great Recession. You can also find presentations on this data from the authors (S. Philip Morgan, Erin Cumberworth, and Christopher Wimer) here.


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