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Ethnic assortative matching in marriage and family outcomes: evidence from the mass migration to the US during 1900–1930


Positive assortative matching in terms of traits such as ethnicity and race has been prevalent in marital formation. One possible explanation for this is that spouses in endogamous marriages possess complementary skills and tastes that increase marital surplus. This paper aims to estimate the effects of ethnic assortative matching on a variety of household outcomes by using the exogenous variation in immigrant flows in the USA during the period 1900–1930 to disentangle the selection effect of partners. The major finding is that the complementarities in home production from same ethnic marriage enhances investment in household public goods such as childrearing and home ownership and reduces the market labor supply of wives. The OLS estimates of the sizes of these effects appear to be substantially biased downward, indicating positive selection into intermarriage in terms of unobservable traits that increase marital surplus.

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Fig. 1


  1. I thank one anonymous referee for suggesting this theoretical possibility.

  2. In the same spirit as this paper, Frimmel et al. (2013) estimated the effect of assortative mating on marital stability in Austria by performing Cox proportional hazard models. One dimension of assortative mating they investigated is ethnicity. They found no evidence that a decrease in assortative mating by ethnicity to be associated with an increase in risk of divorce in Austria. But again, in their estimations, the non-random mate selection has not been accounted for, which potentially could confound their results.

  3. The local sex ratio of immigrants was used as an instrument for the probability of intermarriage between natives and immigrants.

  4. Studies relate cultural proximity of couples to marital outcomes can be found in Kalmijn et al. (2005) and Dribe and Lundh (2012).

  5. Lam (1988) incorporated the joint consumption of household public goods in the assortative matching model in marriage. The traits he focused on were wealth and market wages.

  6. The difference between inter-married and endogamous married couples is that, the marginal benefit from allocating resources to each unit of public good provision is higher for same-ethnic couples due to complementarity of same ethnicity in home production. So for any given amount of resources, same-ethnic couples would allocate more resources on investing in household public goods rather than on their own private consumption relative to intermarried couples. Conceptually, the resources could be in the form of time spent on housework, financial resources devoted to home assets and children. Arguably for mates that are otherwise identical, same-ethnicity matching is also more efficient because the total marital surplus generated by the households would be higher than if mates were to match across ethnicity.

  7. The immigration flows in the numerators of the instruments are calculated by female and male immigrants of all ages. The reason for not confining the calculation to a certain age group is because the data on the immigrants by age were not very consistently grouped in the sample years.

  8. The foreign born plus the native born of foreign or mixed parentage are referred to as the foreign stock by the US Census Bureau.

  9. See Wooldridge (2002; 623) for further discussion on the advantages of this Probit IV estimator and on the procedure.

  10. The local average treatment effect of the IV method was first discussed by Imbens and Angrist (1994).

  11. Also the quota limit law put a more severe restriction of immigrants from countries of South and East Europe and East Asia, but less on North and West Europe (see the Annual Report of the Commissioner General of Immigration in the fiscal year ended June 30, 1924).

  12. Angrist (2002) also used this exogenous variation in immigrant flows to instrument for the sex ratios of ethnic groups.

  13. Chiappori et al. (2002) also pointed out the potential problem of reverse causality in the relationship between regional sex ratios and economic conditions. States that specialize in industries dominated by males will attract more men through migration, and thus, driving up the sex-ratio in these states. The same reasoning can be applied to the inter-state locational choice of immigrants.

  14. Therefore, it is likely that for the majority of the immigrants in the period under study, their marital choice was not confined to the availability of same-ethnic mates within their residing states as reported in the Census data but was affected by the flows of immigrants nationwide, whose arrival locations were heavily concentrated in states where their ethnic groups tended to congregate. However, caution should be taken when using nationwide immigration flows as instruments for local marriage market conditions as the nationwide variation might not affect local marriage market conditions in different geographic location equally.

  15. The results are virtually the same without this treatment.

  16. During 1895–1903, the data was collected by the Bureau of Immigration in the Department of Treasury. It was then transferred to the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in the Department of Commerce and Labor between 1906 and 1913 and subsequently became the Bureau of Immigration in the Department of Labor.

  17. The results are very similar using the wife as the household head.

  18. The changes in national boundaries during the First World War permit consistent separation of ethnic groups in the former Austria-Hungary. My results are insensitive to exclusion of the “Former Austro-Hungarian” group.

  19. To examine the validity of the instruments, I obtained the F-statistics in the first stage regression using OLS. But actual estimates are performed by a three-stage procedure as stated in section 3 with the first stage being a Probit model. The estimates of the Probit first stage evaluated at the sample means are very close to the OLS estimates.

  20. The F-statistics in Table 8 for the first stage regression using this ethnic-specific sex ratio IV and in a specification assuming constant effect of sex ratio presented in Table B1 of Appendix B shows that sex ratios of arriving immigrants as instruments are weaker instruments than IV(1) and IV(2), as it only captures the effect of the gender composition of immigrants on endogamous marriage but not the size effect of immigrants on the foreign stock in the marriage market. Yet it is reassuring that the main results are robust to these alternative instrument sets. These instruments are not employed at the same time due to collinearity for some ethnic groups.

  21. This information is unavailable for the period 1900–1909.

  22. Angrist (2002) argued that the sex ratios of immigrants could affect marital outcomes. But given that the divorce rate was very low: 0.9–1.6 during 1910–1930, (Source: Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics) and importantly divorce was extremely difficult to obtain and could only be granted by proof of fault (such as insanity, drunkenness, physical abuse, imprisonment for a crime, cruelty of treatment, and desertion), it is more plausible that the effect of sex ratios on marital outcomes operated through its effect on endogamous marriage rather than through its changes in remarriage prospects of spouses in the marriage market. A spouse that was unhappy with a marriage could not obtain a divorce unilaterally and remarry. This made divorce as a threat point unlikely. In particular, couples that entered into marriage in that period would not conceive the possibility of divorce when divorces were fault-based only. Therefore, once couples had entered into marriages, it is hard to imagine that the sex-ratios in the marriage market could alter family outcomes determined within marriage because the marriage market conditions became irrelevant to couples that were already married when the possibility of remarriage and divorce was almost out of reach.

  23. I also estimate results using an alternative specification that the effects of the instruments to be constant among ethnic groups (i.e., no interaction terms with the ethnic dummies). The results are presented in Appendix B. The estimates are nonetheless not sensitive to this alternative econometric specification.

  24. Massey et al. (2002) suggested that the motivation of migrating to the US among the earliest Mexicans was generally not to relocate permanently but to work temporarily in the US to support families in Mexico (see also Rosenblum et al. 2012). If for example, proportionately more female Mexicans remain in or migrate to the US on a permanent basis when the economic condition in Mexico is bad and increase in the net supply of female Mexicans could reduce the tendency for endogamous marriage among the Mexicans in the US.

  25. I also estimated the effect of endogamous marriage on the labor force participation of husbands. None of the results are statistically significant. This is not surprising given that the labor force participation rate of husbands is 99 % during the sample period.

  26. The instrument set is the number of single female minus the number of single males over the single male population aged 20–45 in ethnic group j in year t.

  27. “Both second generation” is the omitted group.

  28. I have not confined the sample to second generation heads and wives only for the reason that the instruments constructed by the variation in first generation immigration flows might not be valid when the sample is limited to matching among second-generation immigration alone.

  29. In their study, racially mixed couples tend to have one less child than other couples. Note that in their estimates, they did not account for the selection into intermarriage and so it is likely that the true effect of racially endogamous marriage is larger than their estimates.


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This paper was previously circulated as “The Effects of Endogamous Marriage on Family Outcomes: Evidence from Exogenous Variation in Immigrant Flows during 1900–1930 in the United States.” I thank Tsz-Kin Chan, Shelly Lundberg and the anonymous referees for their valuable suggestions. All errors are my own.

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Correspondence to Ho-Po Crystal Wong.

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Responsible editor: Klaus F. Zimmermann


Appendix A

Table 11 Mean values of selected outcome variables by ethnicity of household heads

Appendix B

Table 12 Regression results assuming constant marriage market effects across ethnic groups

Appendix C

Grouping of ethnicity

Individuals are grouped by their place of birth or the place of birth of their parents in the Census data. If the individual was native born and both his parents are foreigners, he would be categorized into the ethnic group of his mother as second generation.

The following codes of the places of birth in the IPUMS Census data that are used to merge with data on the immigration flows from the Annual Report of the Commissioner General of Immigration by “race or people”.

Categorization of ethnicity in IPUMS Census data

Country code in Census Country Ethnicity Country code in census Country Ethnicity
200 Mexico Mexican 434 Italy Italian
400 Denmark Scandinavian 436 Portugal Portuguese
401 Finland Finnish 438 Spain Spanish
402 Iceland Scandinavian 450 Austria Former Austro-Hungarian
404 Norway Scandinavian 452 Czechoslovakia Former Austro-Hungarian
405 Sweden Scandinavian 453 Germany German
410 England English (Anglophone) 454 Hungary Former Austro-Hungarian
411 Scotland English (Anglophone) 455 Poland Polish
412 Wales English (Anglophone) 456 Romania Romanian
413 United Kingdom English (Anglophone) 462 Lithuania Russian
412 Ireland English (Anglophone) 465 Russia Russian
421 France French 501 Japan Japanese
425 Netherlands Dutch 542 Turkey Turkish
433 Greece Greek    

Poland was not identified as a country in the 1910 Census but was again identified in 1920 and onwards after World War I. The Polish stock in the US in 1910 is estimated by population with Polish mother tongue. The same approach is used by Census in estimating the 1910 foreign-born population from Poland (See Gibson 2013). Note that the results are insensitive to exclusion of the Polish ethnic group.

Classification for Ethnicity of Immigrants from the Annual Report of the Commissioner General of Immigration

Race or people Ethnicity
Bohemian and Moravian (Czech) Former Austro-Hungarian
Bulgarian, Serbian, and Montenegrin Former Austro-Hungarian
Dalmatian, Bosnian, Herzegovinian Former Austro-Hungarian
Dutch and Flemish Dutch
English English (Anglophone)
Finnish Finnish
French French
German German
Greek Greek
Irish English (Anglophone)
Italian North Italian
Italian South Italian
Japanese Japanese
Lithuanian Russian
Magyar Former Austro-Hungarian
Mexican Mexican
Polish Polish
Portuguese Portuguese
Rumanian Romanian
Russian Russian
Ruthenia Russian
Scandinavian Scandinavian
Scotch English (Anglophone)
Spanish Spanish
Turkish Turkish
Welsh English (Anglophone)

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Wong, HP.C. Ethnic assortative matching in marriage and family outcomes: evidence from the mass migration to the US during 1900–1930. J Popul Econ 29, 817–848 (2016).

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  • Endogamous marriage
  • Assortative matching
  • Immigrants
  • Intermarriage
  • Labor supply
  • Children

JEL classification

  • D1
  • J12
  • J15