Will the Recession Rock Marriage? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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A look at historical statistics during recessions serves up pointers on what to expect with marriages and divorces in the coming months.

  • American marriages went down dramatically during both the Great Depression and the Great Recession.
  • At a time when people are already marrying less, the latest recession could lend a crippling blow to the institution of marriage.

In a 1936 report published by the New York Times, two University of Chicago sociologists warned of an unlikely epidemic: people staying single. Americans were avoiding getting hitched so much the researchers warned that the country had a “marriage deficit” of about 750,000 due to the Great Depression. The year 1932, when unemployment climbed over 23 percent, saw the lowest number of marriages since records began in the 1880s, they calculated, estimating that more than a million children had gone unconceived.

And though the marriage rate bounced back after that year, the researchers warned of a lingering impact. “Many of the couples deterred by the depression will eventually marry,” they hypothesized, “but as couples become older they have few children.”

As the United States once again sinks into recession, a look at the past offers valuable pointers to what we might expect with marriages in the coming months. Historical statistics can also tell us something — though not everything — about what this moment may mean for our own solemnities.

The marriage rate dropped by 20 percent during the Great Depression, between 1929 and 1933.

A 2014 analysis of marriage rates during that period by Matthew J. Hill, a professor of economics at Loyola Marymount University, found that when male unemployment increased by 5 percent, the probability of marriage for both men and women went down about 4 percent. Hill cautions that the data is difficult to disentangle — but says both fertility and divorce also dropped during the depression. Not only are both related to marriage, but both are expensive propositions.

The Great Recession, too, saw declines in marriage and fertility rates — though not as pronounced as those during the Depression. The marriage rate dropped by more than 4 percentage points between 2008 and 2011, according to an analysis of American Community Survey data by researchers at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.

Whether we can expect a repeat of that in this downturn depends on how exactly the coronavirus plays out, says Dr. Orestes “Pat” Hastings at Colorado State University — who’s analyzed the effects of the recession on unions and births. “I think it’s very hard to say how the Great Recession applies to our current moment,” he says. “But … if this persists, then I would expect to see further drops in marriage and fertility, based on people’s financial concerns and the economic uncertainty.” Physical distancing, too, could affect how people form relationships.

US-HEALTH-VIRUS-WEDDING

Newlyweds Rachel and Sebastian Vasquez kiss while wearing face masks following their wedding ceremony in May 2020 in Rustburg, Virginia.

Of course, marriage and relationships have become increasingly decoupled in recent decades, so it’s possible that marriage isn’t as important as it used to be to a functioning society. And the pomp of weddings has, to many, gotten totally out of hand. The average cost of an American wedding in 2019, according to wedding site The Knot, was close to $34,000. The average household income is just over $63,000 — granted, The Knot survey’s respondents were likely more into weddings than your average human beings and thus the price may be exaggerated, but still that’s 53 percent of what the average U.S. household makes in a year. Surprisingly, weddings during the Depression took a big chunk out of household income too. One calculation from 1939 found that the average wedding then cost nearly $400, or about 25 percent of the average yearly household income. Not as bad as in 2019, but still a massive amount of change to blow when basic necessities were difficult to come by for many.

Still, even if people persist with courthouse weddings — or weddings on Zoom — the fact remains that marriages have already declined precipitously. In fact, a CDC analysis released in April found that 2018, the last year with recorded data, saw the lowest marriage rates in America ever, even lower than 1932. So perhaps a further dip will simply be a sign of continuing trends, rather than another recession drop.

For those still planning to tie the knot, Hill’s analysis also found some interesting wrinkles. Those who married just before the Great Depression were more likely to end up divorced than those who got married at other times, and those who married during the depths of the Depression were less likely to be divorced later on. “Essentially, your marriage is more likely to last if it began in hard times rather than good times,” he says. “In econ-speak, the people married during the Great Depression must have been well-matched on unobservable characteristics. In human-speak, these people must have really been in love to marry during the Great Depression.”

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