Separating the Men from the Boys

Do young women shortchange themselves when they settle for premarital cohabitation rather than marriage plain and simple? A study by Arif Mamun of Mathematic Policy Research suggests that women literally do shortchange themselves, finding that old-fashioned matrimony, even in a day of increased prevalence of cohabitation, still generates a sizeable and robust “wage premium” for men that is greater than the premium that accrues to cohabiting boys.

Using data representing nearly 1,500 white males who participated in the twelfth through nineteenth waves (1990–2000) of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Mamun conducted longitudinal and cross-section log-wage regressions to measure the effects of marital status on men’s wages. In his cross-sectional analysis, the researcher found that the wage premium was more than 21 percent for married men, but only 6.5 percent for cohabiting men, relative to never-married and non-cohabiting men. In both cases, the coefficients were statistically significant: p<.01 for husbands and p<.05 for cohabitants. Both effects on men’s wages remained statistically significant in longitudinal regressions that controlled for selection effects and differential wage growth, even as the size of the premium was reduced for both categories. These regressions also determined that the marital premium increased slowly, but surely, over the length of marriage, as wages rose 1.6 percent for each additional year of marriage.

In other statistical models that assessed wage differences among different kinds of cohabiting arrangements (one that ends in marriage, one that ends in separation, and one that continues), Mamun found that “the cohabitation premium accrues only to those who marry later on, but not to men in the other two categories.” Yet unlike the marriage premium, there was no statistically significant duration effect of cohabitation on men’s earnings. In essence, these results suggest that if a cohabiting woman wants her partner to earn more money, she needs to marry him.

Mamun may be among the first researchers to discover a cohabitation-wage premium, yet he ironically believes his findings warrant public affirmation of a behavior that was considered scandalous not long ago. Fearing that “healthy marriage” policies since the George W. Bush era ignore or downplay cohabitation, the researcher seems to believe that welfare policies should also promote cohabitation as a means to enhance family well-being. Yet if he were honest with his own data, which clearly signal a wage penalty for cohabiting men relative to their married peers, the Mathematic researcher would understand the virtue of upholding the social ideal that delivers the best outcomes for women and children, not a pale substitute.

(Arif Mamun, “Cohabitation Premium in Men’s Earnings: Testing the Joint Human Capital Hypothesis,” forthcoming inJournal of Family and Economic Perspectives.)