Gender norms, roles, unequal pay, and heterogeneous effects

The Economist has a nice summary of a new paper by Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica, and Jessica Pan, which is forthcoming. An excerpt of the Economist article is below.

The paper offers some hints as to why women who could outearn their husbands choose not to work at all, or to work less. For instance, norms affect the division of household chores, but economically in the wrong direction. If a husband earns less than his wife, she might rightfully expect him to take on some additional responsibilities at home. In reality, however, if she earns more, she spends more time taking care of the household and their children than otherwise similar women in comparable families, who earn less than the husband. One wonders whether such women feel compelled to soothe their husbands’ unease at earning less.

I’m in the midst of reading the paper right now, and my first thought was that this is an incredible stretch. In econometrics, a significant problem in estimation is the problem of unobserved heterogeneity. It makes sense to think that on average, married women are different than single women, that women who choose to have children are different than women who choose not to have children, and finally, it should makes sense that men who marry women who earn more than them are likely different than men who marry women who earn less than them.

I can certainly imagine that some women would be inclined to “soothe their husbands’ unease at earning less,” but it seems that the men who were particularly sensitive to such things wouldn’t marry a woman with greater income or greater earning potential. This is, in fact, what they find, that women who work are less likely to marry a man who earns less, and thus partially explains the decline in marriage rates in the US. It also drives much of their results on divorce, which they see as arising out of the unequal division of labor in the household due to this “soothing effect.”

It appears to be a very thorough paper, though I’m skeptical of the instrument–men’s and women’s industry-specific wage distributions–being uncorrelated with unobserved characteristics that lead to more gender-equitable matches.

Based on the industry composition of the state and industry-wide wage growth at the national level, we create sex-specific predicted distributions of local wages that result from aggregate labor demand that is plausably [sic] uncorrelated with characteristics of men and women in a particular marriage market.

This is the instrument used by Aizer (2010) in her paper on the effect of an increase in women’s wages on rates of domestic violence. Though a subtle distinction, I find her use of the instrument much more plausible due to the much lower prevalence of hospitalization-inducing violent events versus marriages where the woman earns more, which the Bertrand paper cites as about one quarter of the marriages in their sample. It seems that these wage distributions actually would be correlated with the characteristics of men and women in a labor/marriage market.

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.

Related Content:

  1. Anticipating Divorce
  2. For Valentine’s Day, on Love and Marriage and Economics

On anticipating divorce, again

Related to my post earlier this week, a new working paper shows that women in the US respond to increased divorce rates by working harder. Knowledge of high divorce rates appears to be enough to incentivize working harder in anticipation of even a probabilistic one-earner household. I haven’t had the chance to read the paper itself (I will, but 68 pages!?), but Ezra Klein discusses it here:

Why would this be the case? Researchers believe it’s because marriage provides “implicit social insurance” for women, who are still more likely to be the secondary income-earners in the U.S. and Europe. So in the U.S., where divorce rates are higher, “women have a higher incentive to obtain work experience in case they find themselves alone in the future,” they write. “European women anticipate not getting divorced as often and hence find less reason to insure themselves by working as much as American women.”

A longer treatment of the paper by the authors is on the VoxEU website.

Referenced: Chakraborty, Indraneel, Hans A Holter and Serhiy Stepanchuk (2012). “Marriage Stability, Taxation and Aggregate Labor Supply in the US vs. Europe”, Working Paper.

Anticipating divorce

This Journal of Human Resources paper by Elizabeth Ananat and Guy Michaels is a few years old now, but as I’m readying my first dissertation chapter for submission, I’ve been reading up and reminding myself of various literatures and it seemed appropriate. Ananat and Michaels present an intuitive, causal story for how divorce causes women to live in poverty. It seems pretty straightforward: the break-up of a marriage means women are less likely to live in a household without income from someone else, but also that women work to compensate for such income losses by going back to work, moving in with siblings, etc.

Divorce increases the probability of living in a household without other earners. In fact, we estimate that breakup of the first marriage significantly increases the likelihood that a woman lives in a household with less than $5,000 of annual income from others—the likelihood rises from just over 5 percent for those whose first marriage is intact to nearly 50 percent for those whose first marriage breaks up. However, women can and do respond to income loss from divorce by combining with other households, through paths including remarriage or moving in with a roommate, sibling, or parents. Moreover, women further compensate through private (for example, alimony and child support) and public (for example, welfare) transfers, and by increasing their own labor supply.

I use the same logic to say that as long as she has some idea that the divorce (or union dissolution in my case as I include unmarried couples) is imminent, a woman should make compensatory decisions regarding the future loss of income, not just the immediate loss of income.

E.O. Ananat with Guy Michaels. “The Effect of Marital Breakup on the Income and Poverty of Women with Children.Journal of Human Resources 43.3 (2008): 611-629.

The evolution of marriage

Mark Oppenheimer has a semi-profile of Dan Savage, semi-critique of modern marriage in the NYTimes Magazine this weekend. Savages suggests that as we begin to expand the definition of marriage to include gay couples (as NY did last week and RI sort of did yesterday), we might also want to decrease our expectations around fidelity.

Interesting quote:

“In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women ‘the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,’ we extended to men the confines women had always endured. ‘And it’s been a disaster for marriage.’ ”

Savage argues that before feminist movements sought marriage equality, men ran around with concubines and mistresses and it was mostly accepted. While this is a rather sweeping generalization, it is interesting to think about what would have happened if marriage had become more egalitarian in the sense that women were allowed to pall around, as opposed to men now being held to higher standards.

My interest in the subject is less on the benefits of nonmonogamy, and more on how a culture of “working through” cheating would affect divorce rates and children.

A number of papers in economics have recently tried to tease out the effect of divorce on children, but the trend, as Savage suggests, is towards advocating stability over monogamy. It’s not that he’s saying nonmonogamy for all, necessarily, just “the cultural expectation should be if there’s infidelity, the marriage is more important than fidelity.” When most of these papers talk about stability, they often refer to the mother having more than one partner or the father moving in and out of the picture multiple times, but the divorce brings a lot of trauma regardless of whether the parents ever remarry. The negative affects appear to be amplified when you add in new boyfriends and step-parents.

My research, however, shows that some of the negative effects may be in place whether or not the couple ever divorces. A lot of the economic reasoning behind the findings suggests that people are forward-looking and adjust their behavior (particularly investment in children) in anticipation of divorce. So, if we create a culture whereby sticking it out is the norm, we essentially raise the costs of divorce by increasing public admonition or shunning by peers or some other means. We could think about retreating from no-fault and unilateral divorce laws, but let’s say we don’t want to return to those dark ages, either.

We raise the costs of divorce and if we succeed, we keep more marriages intact. But if negative effects are in place before, or even in the absence of, divorce, and can be attributed to something other than anticipation of divorce, then we don’t really solve the problem of hurting kids. We maintain stability, in some sense, as a parent or parent’s lover isn’t walking in and out constantly, but kids aren’t stupid. Especially older children will likely notice something is amiss, behavior will change and we’ll still likely see negative effects. Will they be measureable? Will they be significant enough to observe? Perhaps not on average, but I don’t think asking parents to stay together, unhappy, solves the problem.

The other large problem with raising the costs of divorce is differentiating between socially acceptable causes for divorce and not socially acceptable causes. If we say that one-night stands should be overlooked, what about a weekend fling? Or a two-week fling? Or a month-long tete-a-tete? Where do we draw the line? Savage realizes the Schwarzeneggers, for instance, were doomed, but what’s in the middle? And the intersection of cheating and intimate partner violence is much larger than I think Savage realizes. Infidelity is often a tool of abuse and while a culture that overlooks a fling might seem a big leap from a culture that overlooks a slap or controlling money or a broken arm, I think we’re far enough down that road already.

To his credit, Savage advocates each couple figuring the process out for themselves. Monogamy, he says, still works for some couples even if it doesn’t work for all. Keeping it together for the kids may seem like a noble goal, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all goal, and the associated negative externalities could be large.

On not getting divorced

Divorce, we all know, is traumatic. Even if we are the lucky few who managed to watch our parents lovingly stay together our entire lives, we realize that we are the lucky few. Children of the 70s and 80s are all too familiar with divorce. We consoled our friends through it, we had dinner at friends’ houses in tense, uncomfortable situations and we likely see divorce as the norm. Perhaps people aren’t meant to stay together forever.

There is a lot of research that says that children of divorce have worse outcomes than children of parents who stay together. The causal link is tenuous, at best, which was the primary motivation for one chapter of my thesis. Surely, we know that couples who decide to get divorced are different than those who stay together, but that doesn’t mean all couples that stay together are the same, and it doesn’t mean they are happy or that they shouldn’t get divorced. In short, we have all this information about how divorce affects children, but in reality, we know that it isn’t likely the mere act of divorce that might hurt children, but rather how parents’ behavior and decision-making change when they’re thinking about divorce and moving toward divorce, even if they never get there.

While presenting this paper, as I’m sure other scholars of divorce and children have experienced, I’ve been asked, several times, whether the policy implication is that people shouldn’t get divorced. Should we be spending more money on marriage promotion or free couples’ counseling or something to encourage couples to stay together, for the good of the children? I think that my goal, in some ways, was precisely the opposite. Not that we should encourage divorce, but rather that concentrating too much on divorce as being bad for kids ignores everything that happens leading up to a divorce, it ignores the fighting and bargaining and trauma that results when parents are unhappy, regardless of whether they get divorced. It may be even that we’ve vilified divorce so much that parents who likely should get divorced, don’t.

The New York Times today offers some evidence of a backlash of sorts against divorce. They cite a marriage study that shows that those same children of the 70s and 80s, my generation and those a bit older than me, are less likely to get divorced than our parents. While the divorce rate hovers around 50% for the population, the rate for recent college-grads within 10 years of marriage is closer to 10%. Despite the fact that we’re not seeing these people through the whole of their marriages and lives yet, that’s a big difference. It should be noted, however, that fewer women my age are getting married at all. The same study showed that women aged 25-29 were much less likely to have ever been married, in fact, half of all women in that age range had never married. So, we’re dealing with a smaller base, here as well. It might be that the marriages that are occurring are just better marriages, as other people are waiting.

Regardless of how exactly the numbers play out, the Times used these stats, and anecdotes and books, to show that divorce has become almost taboo among some segments of society. The article tells horror stories of storybook wives and mothers being outcast from the social spheres once they decided to divorce, a decidedly different take on divorce than the feminist, liberating, now-you’re-free state that they say ruled earlier generations.

Though it’s easy to toss out theories of social pressure in middle age as bunk, there is evidence that social networks (and I mean communities, not facebook) can have a profound effect on the decision to divorce. One recent paper found that having a friend or family who divorces makes you much more likely to divorce. Contrary to how this may sound, it doesn’t appear that divorce is actually contagious, like the measles. Rather, it is likely that seeing someone else get divorced changes perceived costs and benefits of divorce. If a friend goes through a divorce, you may see how hard it is on her and her family, but you also see the benefits later on of her new situation. And if she has already done it, you benefit from not being the only one.

In communities where divorce is looked down upon–be it for religious reasons, or ‘for the kids’, the costs for divorce likely remain very high, even if you know someone who has done it. It is precisely situations like these where economics trips up. In modeling divorce or investments in children, we control for what we can, but knowledge of a community’s stigma about divorce likely remains unknown. In the case where such a stigma is correlated with race or income, we might ascribe effects to race or income where they don’t belong.