The Marriage Premium; A book and an institution gets
Mr. Kurtz is also a fellow at the Hudson Institute November 15, 2001 9:10 a.m.
A year ago, I wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal exposing a case of egregious
political bias at Harvard University Press. In an unusual move, the board of Harvard Press
declined to publish The Case For Marriage a lively, rigorous, and
path-breaking study of the advantages of marriage coauthored by respected University of
Chicago sociologist Linda Waite and syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher. Although The
Case for Marriage had garnered two positive reviews from Harvard's own scholarly referees,
the Press's Board of Syndics rejected the book at the last minute on the grounds that
Waite and Gallagher had failed to prove a causal relationship between marriage and the
many benefits that they claimed for the institution.
Harvard's stated reasons for rejecting The Case for Marriage were utterly unconvincing.
For one thing, Harvard had already published feminist tracts with scandalously thin
empirical grounding by Catherine MacKinnon and Carol Gilligan. (The shaky empirical
foundations of Gilligan's In A Different Voice were exposed, to considerable public
attention, by Christina Hoff Sommers's book The War Against Boys.) So why not publish
Waite and Gallagher's extraordinarily well-researched study? Was this a case of bias
against a book that challenged feminist orthodoxy by showing the unique advantages of
marriage? You bet it was. (For more on bias at Harvard Press, see "Harvard's Book
Problem.") But now, a spectacular new piece of research has provided stunning
vindication for the Waite-Gallagher thesis on the benefits of marriage.
What the Harvard Press board was asking Waite and Gallagher to do was next to impossible.
The only sure way to make causal judgments about the effects of marriage would be to run a
controlled experiment, randomly assigning young people to marriage and singlehood and then
following their progress throughout life. But human beings are not guinea pigs. That is
why even the very best sociological research generally fails to provide concrete causal
proof. Since we cannot easily run controlled experiments on real human beings, we
generally have to make causal judgments through inference.
Harvard was obviously holding The Case for Marriage to an impossible standard and a
double standard in order to suppress the book.
Yet, lo and behold, as reported in the Washington Post, a year later, two creative
researchers, Donna Ginther and Madeline Zavodny of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta,
have actually found a way to do the seemingly impossible. For the first time in the
history of research on marriage, Ginther and Zovodny appear to have successfully shown
that the "marriage premium" the tendency of married individuals to make
more money than single people is an actual effect of marriage, and not just a
function of a preference shown by both employers and potential spouses for people with
qualities likely to bring about success.
Ginther and Zavodny
pulled off this neat little trick by studying "shotgun
weddings" marriages that took place after the woman was already pregnant.
Ginther and Zovodny reasoned that couples marrying under such pressured circumstances
were likely to include many individuals who might not otherwise marry. If the men in these
"shotgun" marriages ended up with greater income than single men with the same
sort of background, then the "marriage premium" would be real, and not simply
the result of a "selection effect." (The marriage premium applies to working
wives as well, but Ginther and Zavodny only studied men.)
It turns out that even men stampeded into marriage by a pregnancy earn about 16 percent
more than single guys. Almost 90 percent of the marriage premium remains, even for a group
in which selectivity has been substantially short-circuited by the advent of a pregnancy.
Of course, even here, a degree of selection bias is bound to exist. Not every couple
marries when there is a pregnancy, and it's reasonable to suppose that those who are
already most suited to each other, and to marriage itself, are more likely to marry on the
discovery of a pregnancy. But the white men in the "shotgun" group earned less,
were younger, and had less education than other white men getting married. Clearly, these
men were less desirable as husbands, and the marriages were substantially precipitated by
the pregnancies. Yet the marriage premium remained. So Ginther and Zavodny appear to have
found the "holy grail" of sociological research on the effects of marriage
a way to eliminate selection bias and provide causal proof of marriage's beneficial
When I called Linda Waite for comment on the Ginther and Zavodny study, she was obviously
excited. Waite called the study, "pretty amazing," and characterized the results
"powerful evidence for a causal effect over selectivity." According to Waite, it
was "almost shocking" that a full 90 percent of the marriage premium remained in
effect for the "shotgun" couples.
Why the marriage premium? The mutual advice, emotional support, and concrete help that
married partners provide to one another seems to free up and strengthen both husbands and
wives to succeed at what they do. When married women work, they make more money than
single women. When married women mother, on the other hand, their personal financial
premium disappears. Yet mothers benefit from something far more valuable the
support and protection of a husband who himself seems to strive (and succeed) that much
more for the sake of and with the help of his wife and child.
Now that this important causal evidence in support of Waite and Gallagher's The Case for
Marriage has emerged, their erstwhile feminist critics will no doubt fall over themselves
in the rush to retract their skeptical attacks.
And with causal proof at last secure, surely Harvard University Press will offer to
publish the sequel to the rejected book, just as Harvard Press has continued to publish
book after book by Catherine MacKinnon and Carol Gilligan. At least, that's what would
happen if Harvard Press is motivated as they say they are not by ideology,
but simply by the highest standards of scholarship.
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