Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers on why we study families

I’m often asked why my research is economics and not sociology. Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson give one answer as part of a longer Q&A on their research:

Your other areas of research focus include marriage, divorce, and family. Why would these areas interest economists? Or business leaders?

Dr. Stevenson: Economics is about how people make decisions optimally, given that they’re facing constraints. That framework can be applied anywhere, not just to things that are about dollars and cents and the economy. Families and labor markets are intimately connected, and to understand one, it’s helpful to understand the other. That’s because decisions about labor force participation and about what kinds of jobs to take and what kind of hours to keep are made within the context of family lives. What happens in families affects the way people make those kinds of decisions. And what happens in labor markets affects the decisions people make about families. Economists are also interested in families because we have come to realize that there are many parallels between family and labor markets.

Dr. Wolfers: The first place that people notice the similarities between family and economics is in what some have called the marriage market, which looks a whole lot like the labor market. People search for partners the same way they search for jobs. When you find a spouse or a job that looks like a good fit, you take it. And you must make a decision about how much time to spend searching for the perfect spouse or the perfect job before accepting a job or a spouse.

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  2. For Valentine’s Day, on Love and Marriage and Economics
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For Valentine’s Day, on love and marriage and economics

Perhaps I’m hyper aware of things going on in both media and social media these days, but it seems that UPenn economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson are everywhere these days. They’re all over my twitter feed for one. Then, today this came out in the Washington Post, and over the weekend, out came a profile in the NYT. The Times article describes them as a ‘power couple’ of economics. Which is pretty funny if you know any economist couples.

Though our research hasn’t come head to head yet, Justin and Betsey do a lot of work in family economics, much like I do. So, their meteoric rise to national prominence (at least among the WaPo-, NYT-reading set, is of interest to me. In particular, someone mentioned a quote from Betsey Stevenson saying that the household problem (as we so lovingly call it in economics) had turned from one of shared production to shared consumption.

Much of the dominant thinking in family and household economics has roots in Gary Becker’s A Treatise on the Family. It rests on ideas that can only politely be called antiquated. Women are in charge of domestic production (cleaning, child-rearing, cooking, laundry, etc) and men are in charge of bringing home the bacon. It’s specialization at the household level. Very economist-y. On some level, it probably made a lot of sense to think about marriage in this manner, particularly when women’s wages were much, much lower than men’s. In fact, it made so much sense that it partly earned Becker a Nobel Prize in Economics.

At some point during my fourth year of graduate school, I ordered my own copy. It was a simple (though really expensive!) purchase. A paperback, just a book, but a book that essentially formed much of the dominant thinking in my field. Even then, I knew its time in the spotlight was waning. I’ve still never read the whole thing. Despite knowing it was a classic, I can still only look up passages when I think they’re relevant. Reading more than a few pages makes the feminist in me absolutely boil.

But someone else recently said that, as economists, we should hope that our research becomes irrelevant, because that means that society has changed or that we’ve developed policy solutions for those questions and problems. And that’s probably what is happening here.

The world is changing; marriage is changing, love is changing. Household production is definitely changing. And perhaps all of this is about household consumption (enjoying kids and raising them together) rather than household production (raising kids, a public good). I’m unsure whether this is true at every socio-economic level, or whether it’s a privilege of high-earners, but it’s certainly an interesting way to frame and model marriage in economic terms.

Happy Valentine’s Day!