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Should I stay or should I go? Marriage markets and household consumption

Berk Ozler's picture

“We propose a model of the household with consumption, production and revealed preference conditions for stability on the marriage market. We define marital instability in terms of the consumption gains to remarrying another individual in the same marriage market, and to being single. We find that a 1 percentage point increase in the wife’s estimated consumption gains from remarriage is significantly associated with a 0.6 percentage point increase in divorce probability in the next three years.”

That is from a recent working paper by Cherchye et al. (2016), which was presented at the CSAE conference (see here for a round up by Markus, Dave, and others). It extends on a model of the marriage market (and its implications for household consumption) in a paper that is now forthcoming in the AER by three of the four co-authors caharacterizing stable marriages. In this paper, the authors define indices for “how much better off an individual would be if (s)he were single rather than married (IR index); and how much better off she would be if she remarried another individual in the local marriage market (BP index). Using household survey data from Malawi, they find that a one percentage point increase in the wife’s BP index increases chances of divorce by 0.6 percentage points within three years. Perhaps more interestingly (or depressingly), their model implies that no married women in the sample would prefer to be single by leaving their current marriage behind.

The last finding got my attention because, also in Malawi, we have research that shows that unconditional cash transfers (UCT) delay marriages and childbearing for young women. But, the “not wanting to be single” finding here resonated with me because we also found that when the cash transfer stopped, there was a marriage and baby boom among UCT beneficiaries within nine months of the end of the program (see the first figure in this recent blog post; paper here). This is consistent with previous literature on the effects of income (and income shocks) on marriage, fertility, and divorce decisions in developing and developed countries: a significant percentage of young women in Malawi preferred to be single when they had a small but steady income, but quickly got married when that income source went away.

What else might women have to put up with for economic security? Using DHS data from 38 countries, another paper in the same CSAE session by Antilla-Hughes et al. (2016) suggested that women may be more tolerant of intimate partner violence (IPV) in tougher economic times. The paper is very preliminary and needs to do a lot more before convincing the readers of the findings (the presenting author at CSAE was very candid about the preliminary nature of their analysis). It’s also hard to tell how the DHS questions on attitudes towards domestic violence relate to real-life IPV, but it does not take a huge leap of imagination to think that people put up more with undesirable circumstances when hit with negative shocks – unfortunately including women being more accepting of domestic violence.

A dear colleague of mine, who has been working on household economics and gender issues in sub-Saharan Africa for a long time, said to me afterwards that a reliable safety net for women might completely upend the existing household structures. Given the evidence, it’s hard to disagree…

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