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Knot yet: minimum marriage age law, marriage delay, and earnings


Despite the historical highs for age at first marriage, little is known about the causal relationship between marriage delay and wages, and more importantly, the mechanisms driving such relationship. We attempt to fill the void. Building on an identification strategy proposed in Dahl (Demography 47:689–718, 2010), we first establish the causal wage effects of marriage delay. We then propose ways to distinguish among competing theories and hypotheses, as well as the channels through which marriage delay affects wages. Specifically, we take advantage of their different implications for causal relationship, across gender and sub-populations. We reach two conclusions. First, we find a positive causal impact of marriage delay on wages, with a larger effect for women. Comparison of IV and OLS estimates suggests that the observed relationship between marriage delay and wages is attributed to both selection in late marriages and true causal effects. Second, we find strong evidence that the positive, causal effects are almost exclusively through increased education for both men and women.

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Fig. 1


  1. Source:

  2. In the paper, we use age at first marriage, marital delay, delayed marriage, and timing of first marriage interchangeably.

  3. The literature has linked marital delay to women’s liberation and considered it as a main contributor to increased female labor supply and improved female occupational status (Goldin and Katz 2002; Bailey 2006), but not necessarily wages.

  4. One may argue that specialization could be achieved via cohabitation and thus does not require legal marriage. This is one of the reasons why we use the 1980 Census data in this paper, as cohabitation was less prevalent during this time period. Further, as noted in Rose (2001), although specialization can be realized through cohabitation, marriage provides for “greater ability to monitor and enforce agreements than more informal relationships” ((Lundberg and Pollak 1995).

  5. Source: New York Times

  6. We also use age and age squared in place of age dummies, but the results change only slightly.

  7. As a referee points out, if states tend to raise their minimum marriage ages over time, people who marry at later ages (for reasons unrelated to marriage age laws) will tend to be covered by higher minimum marriage ages than others in their same state and birth year cohort. This may inflate the first-stage estimates using our IV. However, state laws in minimum marriage age during that period did not necessarily follow a monotonic increasing trend; there have been quite a few increases and decreases during the time period, which are important sources of the identification in both our and Dahl’s papers.

  8. Miller (2013) examines the effect of marriage delay on accumulated wealth, and finds no significant effect using OLS. It would be interesting to see if IV estimation changes the results. However, for the same reason mentioned above as well as lack of information in Census data, we do not examine wealth as an outcome variable here, and will leave it for future research.

  9. Both Zhang (1995) and Bergstrom and Schoeni (1996) provide some evidence of such patterns. In particular, Bergstrom and Schoeni (1996) find that while age at first marriage is positively associated with wages (consistent with Bergstrom and Bagnoli (1993)), the relationship becomes negative for those who married after age 30 (which cannot be explained by Bergstrom and Bagnoli (1993)).

  10. An alternative measure of mobility is interstate move by comparing between state of birth and state of current residence. This is not necessarily a better measure, however. First, such mobility measure also captures involuntary moves during childhood. Second, across-state mobility fails to account for migrations within state. We can use this measure as another crude measure of mobility to test our results. However, as shown below, we do find strong evidence that all the coefficients are completely explained by education, which leaves little room for other channels.

  11. One concern is that determinants of child-bearing are also those of marriage, in which case a model for fertility and a model for marriage would be observationally equivalent and cannot be separately identified. This implies that conditioning on fertility, there would not be any independent variations in marriages or age at first marriages. Our results, however, do not support this.

  12. The reason is because the inverse Mills ratio will be a function of only x and the reduced form could suffer from collinearity.

  13. Note that this test can be readily extended to the multivalued case, but for ease of exposition and computation, we consider a binary case here, i.e., whether spousal income is greater than or equal to median income.


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The authors thank Junsen Zhang (the editor) and three knowledgable referees for their constructive comments. The authors are also particularly grateful to Reagan Baughman, Daniel Henderson, Karen Smith Conway, Amitabh Chandra, Bruce Elmslie, Ju-Chin Huang, Delia Furtado, Sanders Korenman, Ted Joyce, Scott Drewianka, Per Fredriksson, Paul Glewwe, Esfandiar Maasoumi, Daniel Millimet, Solomon Polachek, Subal Kumbhakar, and Christopher Hanes, and seminar participants at the Southern Methodist University, University of New Hampshire, SUNY-Binghamton, University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and SEA Annual Meetings for their invaluable comments and suggestions. Mica Kurtz provided excellent research assistance in collecting the data on minimum marriage age laws. The usual disclaimers apply.

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Correspondence to Le Wang.

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Wang, C., Wang, L. Knot yet: minimum marriage age law, marriage delay, and earnings. J Popul Econ 30, 771–804 (2017).

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  • Timing of first marriage
  • Wages
  • Human capital
  • Selection

JEL Classification

  • J12
  • J16
  • J31