Marital Sorting and Parental Wealth: By Kerwin Kofi Charles, University of Chicago; Erik Hurst, University of Chicago and Alexandra Killewald, University of Michigan, NBER Working Paper http://www.nber.org/papers/w16748
Many love stories have as their theme poor boy meets rich girl, both fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. Or it could also be poor girl meets and marries prince. Unfortunately, as we all know, marriages are not made in heaven but happen mostly among people of more or less the same economic background. The authors delve deep into the interesting question of who marries whom. Their aim is to find out what proportion of marriages in the US occur between different economic groups. Do rich men marry poor women? Or vice versa? The answers will provide an understanding of how rigid the economic barriers are in US society. Simply put, how often do people marry outside their class?
Their findings are unequivocal: men and women in the US marry partners whose parents have wealth similar to that of their own parents; and are very unlikely to marry persons from very different parental wealth backgrounds. Does this have anything to do with education? People may want a similar education background for their spouses. But the authors say that “the fact that the sons and daughters of the wealthy (poor) tend to be very similarly educated explains no more than one-quarter of the strong assortative marriage by parental wealth we document”.
What then are the chances of marrying into a rich family? The researchers find that only 19% of husbands with the poorest parents marry women whose parents are wealthy enough to place them in the top 40% of the parental wealth distribution. Similarly, only 10% of husbands from the wealthiest parental backgrounds are married to wives drawn from families in the lowest quintile of the adjusted parental wealth distribution.
What explains the fact that most children from wealthy families marry other children from wealthy families? One obvious reason is that people interact within their own social set.
A child from a mansion is unlikely to know many children from the slums. Another reason, according to the authors, is that “the traits one finds attractive among all the people one meets in the marriage market tend to be most prevalent in people from similar backgrounds”.
In short, it’s difficult to marry your way to riches. Cinderella is, after all, a fairy tale.
Graphic by Jayachandran/Min
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