No longer a “soft issue”: Failing marriages a direct contributor to middle class stagnation

by Ryan Streeter on February 17, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Ever hear that the stagnating middle class wages we hear so much about are mostly due to failing marriages? Or that falling homeownership rates a generation ago were due mainly to the same?

Probably not, because no one really ever talks about this stuff.

Except Russ Roberts. He talks about it from time to time. Commenting on Charles Murray’s research (Murray now also talks about this stuff), he touches on points I made in an earlier post (h/t Nick Schulz):

If the poorest people have the highest divorce rates, the increase in households in the 1980′s and beyond are going to come from the poorest people, adding numbers of households below the median and pulling the measured median down as a pure statistical artifact. That fall in median household income tells you nothing about the health of the economic system. It’s telling you something about the health of American marriages. (The increase in college attendance over this time period softens the magnitude of the impact, btw. But it doesn’t change it.) (RS: emphasis added)

You can’t conclude then, that “people are getting worse off.” Or “the average person has had no gains.”

The average (or more accurately, the median) person in 2011 is not the same person who was the median 10 and 20 and 30 and 40 years ago. To figure out how people are doing over time, you have to follow the same people over time. When you do that, people are getting richer across the income distribution (though the picture for blacks is mixed) and the biggest gains go to the poor (true of both whites and blacks).