Is There a Shortage of Marriageable Men?

Women who have the highest marriage rates—college-educated women—are facing the greatest “shortage” of men. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution site. Read the full text of the report here.

Although many have pointed to a shortage of "marriageable" men as the reason for the dramatic decline in marriage rates in the U.S., under new definitions of "marriageable" for both men and women, that shortage is concentrated in the black population and among the best educated.

In "Is There a Shortage of Marriageable Men?" we argue that the ratio of marriageable men to women depends critically on how one defines "marriageable."

Traditionally, the definition of "marriageability" was the ratio of employed men to all women of the same age. Using this definition, the authors find a shortage of eligible men available for women to marry (91 men per 100 women).

However, the assumption built into the traditional definition—that all women are equally marriageable, regardless of employment status or other characteristics—does not reflect modern realities about the role that women's earnings play in family finances.

It also does not account for the growing proportion of young women of marriageable age who already have children from a prior relationship, which makes men "understandably reluctant" to want to marry them and take responsibility for someone else's child.

When we examined gender ratios that consider the employment of both men and women, as well as whether there are children from previous relationships, as indicators of marriageability, we found no shortage of marriageable men in any of our estimates. But even these more realistic ratios presented in the aggregate do not tell the whole story.

marriage market
Author's tabulations of 2012 American Community Survey/PUMS data Brookings

"Assortative mating"—marrying someone from a similar educational or socio-economic background—is the norm in the U.S. As such, we further examined marriageability ratios within education groups and racial groups.

Breaking down marriage markets by education tells a somewhat surprising story: It is the group of women who have the highest marriage rates—college-educated women—who are facing the greatest "shortage" of men. Women are now more educated than men overall, and this will likely lead to more women marrying "down" educationally, or not marrying at all.

We also found that while male earnings have affected marriage rates over the past four decades, the magnitude of this effect is not huge and may diminish over time as women's education and earnings increase and gender roles evolve toward a more egalitarian state.

We also found that concerns about a shortage of marriageable men among black Americans are likely due to high rates of incarceration and early death among black men.

We suggest policy interventions to help bolster the institution of marriage: improving economic opportunities, particularly for less-educated men, and reducing the number of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

However, the question of whether marriage can be restored is the wrong one to ask. What matters for children is the stability of relationships, the maturity of their parents and their desire to take on one of the most important tasks any adult ever undertakes.

Historically, marriage has been the institution which promoted these goals. For some, it will continue to do so. But it is only a proxy for what matters more: the quality of parenting, the stability of a child's environment, and the circumstances of her birth.

Isabel V. Sawhill is a senior fellow in the Center on Children and Families and Joanna Venator is a former senior research assistant in the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.