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New Evidence Against a Causal Marriage Wage Premium

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Recent research has shown that men’s wages rise more rapidly than expected prior to marriage, but interpretations diverge on whether this indicates selection or a causal effect of anticipating marriage. We seek to adjudicate this debate by bringing together literatures on (1) the male marriage wage premium; (2) selection into marriage based on men’s economic circumstances; and (3) the transition to adulthood, during which both union formation and unusually rapid improvements in work outcomes often occur. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, we evaluate these perspectives. We show that wage declines predate rather than follow divorce, indicating no evidence that staying married benefits men’s wages. We find that older grooms experience no unusual wage patterns at marriage, suggesting that the observed marriage premium may simply reflect co-occurrence with the transition to adulthood for younger grooms. We show that men entering shotgun marriages experience similar premarital wage gains as other grooms, casting doubt on the claim that anticipation of marriage drives wage increases. We conclude that the observed wage patterns are most consistent with men marrying when their wages are already rising more rapidly than expected and divorcing when their wages are already falling, with no additional causal effect of marriage on wages.

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  1. This restriction excludes 78 men who never entered the labor force.

  2. For respondents with concurrent jobs, we choose the job in which the respondent reports the most hours per week; in the event of a tie, we choose the job in which the respondent has the longest tenure (National Longitudinal Surveys 2016).

  3. The log specification fit the data better than linear, linear spline, and quadratic specifications in the marriage model. We assume respondents already in the labor market in 1979 with less than a high school degree, a high school degree, some college, or a college degree entered the labor market at age 16, 18, 20, or 22, respectively.

  4. Our quantity of interest differs somewhat from Dougherty’s. Dougherty conditioned on characteristics such as work experience and job tenure, identifying the association between marriage and wages net of these mediators. We are interested in the total effect of marriage on men’s wages, some of which may operate through increased work experience and job tenure, so we do not condition on these variables.

  5. Cheng subsequently smoothed the coefficients from these models for graphical presentation.

  6. In these models, we estimate trajectories beginning only three years before marriage so that the youngest group of grooms can provide valid observations for the entire trajectory.

  7. For all models that stratify by subgroup, we exclude individuals missing information on subgroup membership (e.g., men for whom we cannot determine the relative timing of marriage and first birth).

  8. Cheng (2016) and Dougherty (2006) both tracked wages over a longer interval, and neither included controls for calendar year. Both of these differences contribute to their larger estimate of total wage accumulation in the years surrounding marriage (approximately 20 %) compared with our estimate (approximately 6 %). Results estimated through 20 years after marriage and excluding the calendar year controls are shown in Online Resource 1. We prefer the shorter interval because of small sample sizes at the longest marital durations. We believe that the calendar year controls are useful, although we acknowledge that the collinearity of potential experience, years since marriage, and calendar year makes statistical identification of the separate effects challenging.


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We are grateful to Javier García-Manglano, Florencia Torche, Christopher Winship, and anonymous Demography reviewers for helpful comments, and to Siwei Cheng for both comments and sharing an early version of her manuscript. Lundberg received support from the Undergraduate Research Scholars program of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University and from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P2CH0047879 and under Award Number T32HD007163. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America, May 2014, Boston, MA. Replication code is available on the Harvard Dataverse at doi:10.7910/DVN/X9528P (

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Correspondence to Alexandra Killewald.

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Killewald, A., Lundberg, I. New Evidence Against a Causal Marriage Wage Premium. Demography 54, 1007–1028 (2017).

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