The rich marrying the rich makes the income gap worse, but it’s not our biggest problem | Brookings Institution

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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66 Responses

  1. Oscar Gordon says:

    I’m sorry folks, you both make too much money. I’m afraid I can’t approve this marriage. I suggest you break up & start slumming it.Report

  2. Brandon Berg says:

    But we should be attentive to the dangers of class segregation more generally. Assortative mating may be a symptom of the greater separation of neighborhoods, occupations, educational institutions, and communities.

    Those are personal choices, too. Are we going to tell people what neighborhoods they have to live in, what schools they have to go to, what jobs they have to do, and who they have to hang out with?Report

  3. j r says:

    I don’t really understand the “it’s not our biggest problem” part. It seems to function as a way of introducing a potentially disruptive idea (disruptive to the narrative that income inequality is purely a function of “the rich” taking it over and sticking it to everyone else for fun and profit), while not really disrupting the preferred political narrative.

    And if that is accurate, then what is the point of doing social science at all?Report

  4. Will H. says:

    The thing that is left out in the analysis is some rather simple economics:
    That capital tends to flow from a lesser efficient use to a more efficient use.

    Aggregation of large amounts of wealth can only be so efficient before taxation presents a more efficient option.Report

  5. Damon says:

    “If you are married, the chances are you are married to somebody quite like you, especially in terms of social class and education. This tendency has earned the unromantic label “assortative mating” in social science”

    Assortive mating, living, association, etc.

    Jeebus folks. Folk like being near and around folks like them. This is see everywhere from school cafeterias, housing, etc.Report

  6. Art Deco says:

    I’m somewhat flummoxed as to why people who talk about ‘assortive mating’ think it was not the mode in 1925 to marry within your class or marry someone from somewhere else who had properties which marked them a suitable addition to your class. I suppose people’s choice of spouse might be more class-delimited because people live in larger concentrations with a more differentiated division of labor and corresponding social strata. I suppose the disappearance of cousin marriage might have some effect along those lines (or not; in any case, cousin marriage seems to have breathed it’s last over a century ago). Maybe when people fancy they need some anxiety-provoking phenomenon to write about, they’ll invent one if an existing phenomenon cannot be located.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Art Deco says:

      Fewer women were in middle or high income level jobs in 1925 even if they were from an upper or upper middle class background. The daughter of a doctor was more likely to become a nurse briefly rather than a doctor. The lawyer’s daughter more likely to end up as a lawyer’s secretary rather than a lawyer herself even if she went to an elite college or university. This made it seem like there was more cross-class marriage because people would see a doctor marrying his nurse rather than a doctor marrying the daughter of a wealthy surgeon.Report

      • Art Deco in reply to LeeEsq says:

        1. I think you’re positing that professionals were meeting their wives at work rather than through introductions made through their circle of friends. You can consult an anthropologist who’s a period specialist, but I don’t think it worked the way you think it did for my great-grandparents contemporaries or my grandparents contemporaries. Certainly did not work that way for my relations from those eras.

        2. I think you over-estimate how common it is to have two high-powered professional-managerial types in one household and underestimate the degree to which the wives of successful professional men are willing to downshift when they have the option. I knew one who went from lawyer to law librarian to general academic librarian to school librarian. I knew another who started out as an engineering student, then transferred to public health, then to social work. When she was finally certified, she landed a job in a comparatively undemanding subfraction of social work. She’s at home now. The wife of one CIO where I used to work was employed in some capacity at a bookstore, the wife of his deputy had some sort of fundraising job, &c. I have a lawyer cousin who married a doctor; she quit practicing after five years. His sister, a low level corporation executive, also married a doctor. I think she now has a consulting business out of the house. And so forth. Their mother wasn’t a housewife; she was a chemistry professor and didn’t retire until her youngest child was about 30.

        3. Your conception assumes that the relative compensation rates in various occupations are fixed and not affected by propensities to enter the labor force.Report

        • InMD in reply to Art Deco says:

          This is anecdotal but number 2 definitely rings true based on my Facebook feed. I can’t tell if it’s a testament to America’s challenges with childcare or if it’s something sociological (or something else) but I’m consistently astounded at how many women I graduated law school with who now appear to be stay-at-home moms.Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to InMD says:


            Someone needs to take care of the kids! That being said I think this is an example of how you can really micro-slice the whole assortative marrying thing. The truth is that it still might be common for men to marry somewhat down economically rather than marry at a completely equal economic level. There was a parody of a kitchen magazine that showed the joke:

            “Our Assistant Editor married a Finance Guy and you won’t believe their new kitchen!!:

            Other pop-sociology versions I see are that male lawyers marry teachers or interior decorators and female attorneys marry hedge fund managers.Report

          • j r in reply to InMD says:

            I’m consistently astounded at how many women I graduated law school with who now appear to be stay-at-home moms.

            I think the key to understanding this has to start by asking how many people who have graduated law school in the last ten years did so because they really wanted to practice law and how many went to law school because they hit a certain point in their lives/careers and didn’t know what to do next.

            I just tried to find some historical data on law school enrollment/graduation and it’s surprising how hard it is to find. Admittedly, I did a half assed job, but most of the time I look for data in the context of making a comment, it’s a half assed job. And I can usually find what I’m looking for.

            This is a tangent, but the dearth of information/outright disinformation available to folks contemplating law school is astounding considering that a law degree costs a house. Outside of government contracting, is there less available information on any other purchase of this magnitude?Report

            • Damon in reply to j r says:

              It’s not just law-school.

              I’ve known lots of women who graduated with Bachelors and or Masters Degrees and ended up being stay at home moms. Some of them even said they PREFERRED being moms to working in cubicle farms. Of course I’ve also know women who, finding no suitable men or marriageable prospects in the near future, deciding to have kids/adopt on their own.Report

            • InMD in reply to j r says:

              @j-r There’s a whole movement out there online dedicated to unmasking the ‘law school scam’. The dearth of information about things like rates of enrollment and post law school success is probably their biggest gripe. It’s gotten a bit better over the past few years due to people like Paul Campos taking their criticisms mainstream. The problems that effect law school are the same that effect higher education generally, just magnified due to the cost.

              Again anecdotal but there are/were a lot of people who ended up in law school because it seemed like a good way of making their humanities degrees more practical. Whenever people ask me if they should encourage their kids to go I say very likely no. Maybe if they work at a law firm for a few years, love it, and make some connections it’s worth it but otherwise they’re likely to take on a small mortgage for the luxury of temp work clicking doc review software or maybe nothing at all.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to InMD says:

                post law school success

                Is it like ITT Tech?

                “Well this grad is punching license plates in the prison workshop.”

                “So he works in a prison, prison is part of the justice system, a job in the justice system is in the legal system, WooHoo! Another successful grad!”Report

          • Kazzy in reply to InMD says:


            Like Michelle Obama?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Art Deco says:

      There are things that happen at a percentage of around X% at time T.

      There are things that happen at a percentage of around X+Y% at time Tsub1.

      Being troubled by the latter should not be seen as a denial of the former. The fact that the former existed does not mean that the latter cannot be troubling.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

        I have to admit that I’ve been reading the wrong sorts of websites because I was left wondering what “time Tsubi” meant.Report

      • Art Deco in reply to Jaybird says:

        Are you referring to an ordinary feature of social life, or to a ‘growing problem’ as the media trope has it? Personally, I think conceptualizing people’s amatory and matrimonial choices as a problem when their is ample precedent for the behavior in question suggests and obsessive-compulsive utopianism which is quite disconcerting.

        The thing is, if the phenomenon isn’t tapped out, it will be within thirty-odd years. The number of master’s degrees awarded women began to exceed those for men around about 1985 and the number of doctoral degrees awarded women has exceeded those awarded men since about 2005. Men continue to have a large advantage in the realm of engineering and modest advantages in business and law. Women now have a considerable advantage in medicine and allied trades.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Art Deco says:

      @leeesq @art-deco To echo Jaybird, that assortive mating has always existed does not mean that assortive mating has always existed at the same levels.Report

      • Art Deco in reply to Will Truman says:

        No, it doesn’t. But these complaints are not specified quantitatively. Do we have more or less? I’m pretty skeptical the answer really is more, but one’s family history can be eccentric.Report

        • Will Truman in reply to Art Deco says:

          See my comment below (as well as the links above). We don’t have great data, but what data we have suggests that we do have more of it. If one cares to stalk my commenting history here you can actually see my evolution from believing that it has been constant to believing that it has likely increased.

          (In part to my own right-wing crankery. Specifically, assortive mating is what I call an Inconvenient Finding. Which is to say that it is a finding that Right-Thinking – meaning left-leaning – people would prefer not find. When Inconvenient Findings are found, I tend to give them more weight than when findings coincide with what I believe the social scientists probably wanted to hear.)Report

      • Art Deco in reply to Will Truman says:

        The Tyler Cowen link refers to the 1950s as a time when educational attainment levels were most dissimilar between brides and grooms. Well, men had GI Bill benefits and women very seldom did.Report

    • Murali in reply to Art Deco says:

      I’m pretty sure I’ve got uncles somewhere who have married their first cousins.Report

  7. Jaybird says:

    To what extent do Americans have an obligation to import mates from benighted 3rd world countries?

    I mean, *I* did that, but I didn’t think that that was me meeting an obligation I had.Report

  8. Saul Degraw says:

    How are we defining assortative mating? What if a lawyer marries his paralegal? This is fairly common still. Is it assortative mating or not if the paralegal happens to have a gone to K-Graduate School private education? What if his or her real desire is to be a writer and paralegal is just the bill paying job?

    First I think we need a clear definition of what is and what is not assortative mating before we can address the issue. Does it merely involve jobs at time of marriage or entire pre-marriage biographies? The Wedding Announcements in the New York Times are filled with the upper-middle class. You see plenty of lawyers marrying doctors and vice-versa but you also see plenty of white-collar guys marry women in the arts, who teach elementary school, or at non-profits. Interestingly you don’t see many couples where the woman has the high powered job and the guy teaches high school or something.

    My alma mater was female only until 1969. I worked for a guy who attended Yale in the 1950s. He loved telling me about how everyone at Yale departed on the weekends to drive to Vassar or Wellsley, Barnard, or the Connecticut College for Women for dates. Or the women would come to Yale and Harvard in very structured ways. Is this assortative mating or not?

    What is the solution as this is a matter of personal choices and also changes into how we date now? Yes the big sort is a big issue. How much do people on on-line dating look for people with similar interests and does this end up creating similar job/education/life goal profiles?

    Interestingly the most non-assortative mating might happen in minority communities where women are attending college at bigger and faster rates then men. About the only white-collar women I know with blue-collar husbands are people of color. Usually African-American and/or Hispanic. There I see stuff about the woman being a lawyer or a nurse and the man is an electrician.

    How much of it is women not changing dating patterns even as they enter the workforce? Middle-class and above women were always encouraged to marry men with white-collar jobs even during the days when they did not work or worked briefly before marrying and becoming moms. When my mom attended college in the mid-1960s, her female classmates would talk about getting their “MRS. Degrees” in non-ironic ways. There was also a thing of “Putting Hubby Through” and working while your fiancee or husband attended law school or med school or graduate school of some kind. My mom was a bit of an outlier in her generation for not having kids until she was out of undergrad for 12 years.

    I have seen you mention assortative mating a lot as a problem. Do you have any solutions?Report

    • What if a lawyer marries his paralegal? This is fairly common still.

      He and I are both already married. And straight. So this might involve some awkward conversations.

      Is it assortative mating or not if the paralegal happens to have a gone to K-Graduate School private education?

      This is where I call shenanigans. How many paralegals had the private school treatment? I can only think of one that I have known. She was straight out of college, and very naive. We were working on a long term document review gig. She mentioned that her aunt was a partner in a (different) firm, and wondered aloud if she should ask her aunt for career advise. The rest of us collectively assured her, in the clearest possible terms, that hell yes, she should! So she sent her aunt an email. The next day she received a phone call from her aunt’s firm’s HR department. The conversation began with the HR person saying “So, I understand that you will be joining us…” I don’t know, but I am willing to speculate that she was not educated in the public school system.

      On the other hand, her paralegal status proved fleeting. I heard some years later that she had gone to law school and passed the bar.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Richard Hershberger says:


        I know a number of private school people who work as a paralegals especially now because being a paralegal for a year or two seems common as a way of testing whether you like the legal market. There are also some people I know who like it as a day job because in CA it is an hourly position and firms clamp down on overtime. So they paralegal during the day and work on their art at night and on the weekends.

        Maybe I was thinking of a hyper-specific example I know that might be more special snowflake than most. She went to K-12 private school and then my undergrad. She wants to be a writer so she was not quite looking for a career job but something to do while also working on her writing.

        That being said, paralegal used to be a vocational job and is now seemingly a job held by college grads and people with certificates who got them after undergrad like yourself. I know firms where the older paralegals and legal secretaries tend to be women with blue-collar backgrounds and the younger paralegals and legal secretaries all have college educations. Sometimes they have grad school educations. One senior paralegal at a firm I worked at was a PhD. Another one had an MFA.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Okay, let’s start slicing this. We have Three Tiers of classes, upper, middle, and lower. We also have three tiers within tiers. So we have stuff like lower-lower class, middle-lower class, upper-lower-class, lower-middle class, middle-middle class, upper-middle class, lower-upper class, middle-upper class, and upper-upper class.

      I’d say that a jump across one might qualify and a jump across two definitely does.

      An upper-middle class person who meets a lower-middle class person and falls in love? How dreamy! Let’s make a movie about it!

      Of course, once upon a time, there was this weird thing where a certain type of education was something to aspire to and so there were these poor scholars who lived in crappy housing and had crappy bookshelves filled with absolutely amazing books (probably in crappy condition, though). So you could have these really poor people who could tell the difference between Wordsworth and Shelley, could quote Shakespeare, could debate Relativity, but were still fairly poor.

      That type of poor allows for some weird distinctions to be made as well. If nothing else, it allows for a shared culture on at least one level between the upper-lower and lower-upper that isn’t obviously running rampant in the current year.

      But to bring us back, I’d say a jump across two, or more, of the slices of society mentioned above as redistributive marriage. If you’re going from same to same? Nope. Across one? I’d need to read the arguments.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

        Don’t forget genteel poverty. Many Americans conflate class and wealth but the reality in older countries is a lot different. In Eastern Europe you had many nobles that were basically peasants in life style but had much higher social status with certain privileges because of their ancestry. Women started working in stores in the United Kingdom during the 19th century because a gender imbalance was creating a lot of perpetually single women and girls born to middle class parents could not be made to work as domestic servants or in a factory or field. Stores were considered respectable even if they were making working class wages.Report

        • Chip Daniels in reply to LeeEsq says:

          Don’t forget genteel poverty.

          Architects and humanities majors fill that niche in America.

          I’m hoping that like in previous generations, vulgar and low-born billionaire capitalists from a rising nation like China will cross the pond and urge their daughters to marry a shabby American college professor, merely for his coveted title.

          “Yes. Have the artisanal beer delivered to Mrs. Ling Feng, Ph.D at the Derrida Center for Post Modern Studies.”Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:

          I think Jaybird is mentioning genteel poverty is his “of course” paragraphReport

          • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

            What Jaybird described were secular yeshiva bokers or Bohemian scholars. Genteel poverty is different. These are families that are recognized as upper class by other upper class people but lack wealth.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

          Those genteel chicks were serious marriage material.

          Maybe the problem is that, now, instead of starting out in the lower class and making it to the middle or upper, they’re already in the middle or upper. They’re not climbing because they’re already there.

          But that implies things about the less genteel poor. Better to not dwell on those thoughts.Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

            My understanding is that people living in genteel poverty were part of the middle or upper class. They just had less money. The Cratchits from A Christmas Carol are a good example of this. Dickens depicts them as living in material poverty but from a British 19th century standpoint they would be middle class rather than working class because Robert Cratchit did paper work for a living rather than manual labor. Outside of the United States class and income are not closely linked at all.Report

    • Not every problem has a government solution and not everything without a government solution isn’t a problem.

      As for how to define assortive mating, I think the best data point would be household income growing up. If it is the case that the secretary who measured the doctor in 1955 would actually be a colleague today, then that seems more-or-less lateral rather than an increase. I’ve not seen a good study that looks at this, however.

      One of the above studies I link to looks at education level, which itself isn’t a bad proxy provided that they control for increased educational attainment in women over time to some extent or another.

      What limited data we have suggests that it has been increasing, however. I have gone from believing that it hasn’t increased to believing it probably has.

      On the other hand, let’s say assortive mating has remained constant. Even if so, as female income has increased, and as inequality has increased, the ramifications of assortive mating are likely greater than they have been in the past.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:

        @jaybird @will-truman

        I do not think that there is a government solution to this problem but you bring it up a lot which implies you think that it is a problem and there can be some form of solution. Maybe it is a private solution but a solution none the less.

        I met my current GF via an on-line dating app. The app gives you a new profile every day at noon. You can then choose to like or not like based on the pictures and scant details provided. If you both like it each other, the app sets up a private chat room for a week.

        I picked my gf because we had similar interests and obviously had similar career goals and education levels. We are not carbon copies and have a lot of differences in real life. She is way more of a night owl than I am.

        She is also currently much more financially successful even though we both grew up upper-middle class. She went to a super-elite undergrad and a super-elite MBA program and works in the hot industry right now. I went to a great undergrad, kicked around doing theatre, and then a okay but not well ranked law school at the worst time to go to law school. I am still in career stall because of this. Does this mean we are assortative dating?

        Suppose someone was an upper-middle class professional with all the likes of the upper-middle class urban young person: craft beer, NPR, liberal politics, secular and Sunday is for brunch not Church. Suppose said person also found assortative mating to be a problem. What should they do? Vow to only date high school grads or drop-outs? Date people who don’t read like they read? Date rural conservatives only?

        Is that going to lead to a happy couple?Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          Date *UP*.

          Find a nice middle-upper class girl to date. If she refuses, accuse her of classism.

          Eventually this will work.Report

        • You can replace “government solution” with “workable solution” and it remains as true. I went back and forth between which route to go when I wrote that.

          I don’t know what rural conservatives have to do with anything.

          From the sounds of it, you and your GF would be an assorted match. Which, to be fair, applies to my wife and I as well. I’ve dated across the tracks, though (in one case for over four years). You’re not wrong that it represents individual problems as often as not.

          Which, to be clear, does not mean that your preferences and mine aren’t leading to a collective problem.

          Which itself doesn’t mean that there is a workable solution for the problem.Report

  9. FWIW, I know a doctor who married his secretary. She is an immigrant from Ethiopia, to boot. And quite the catch, I might add.Report

  10. j r says:

    I think that people are missing the forest for the trees. Assortative mating is a real thing. And it is increasing relative to previous few generations. The issue is how you choose to interpret it.

    Rich kids have always tended to marry other rich kids and the same going down the SES scale. What is different now is that there was an initial increase in social mobility that happened once the most prestigious colleges and universities stopped functioning solely as finishing schools for the rich and workplaces became less of an old boys network and got more competitive. People miss this when they try to view assortative mating purely in the context of increasing income inequality and decreasing social mobility.

    In reality, income/social mobility is both increasing and decreasing at the same time. For those above a certain cognitive threshold, mobility has been increasing, while it has been decreasing for those below. Once you grok that, the assortative mating story makes much more sense.Report

  11. Jaybird says:

    Thinking about this some more with Maribou, my suggestion for what happened was “feminism”, her suggestion was “the credit economy”.Report

  12. DensityDuck says:

    Interesting to see the pendulum swing from “it’s terribly sexist to assume that poor women should marry rich men to improve their lives” over to “it’s important for poor women to marry rich men to reduce income inequality”.Report