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Not marrying up
An increasing number of women are marrying men from the same socio-economic class. It raises a vexing question: Does gender equality produce income inequality?
When the daughter of a former flight attendant married the future king of England last year, some starry-eyed monarchists cooed over a 21st-century Cinderella. But the royal wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William was exceptional in more than one way. The postwar phenomenon of "marrying up" is becoming as archaic as the curtsy the Duchess of Cambridge is still expected to do before her mother-in-law. These days, women tend to marry men from the same socioeconomic class, recent statistics from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development suggest. (Indeed, a growing proportion is marrying down. )
That raises a vexing question: Does gender equality produce income inequality?
Women were long inadvertent but key drivers of social mobility. Marrying the boss was one way for the secretary to escape her social background and lift her offspring into a higher stratum of income, networks and cultural sophistication.
As women have overtaken men in education and are catching up with them in the job market, the rise of what sociologists and economists call assortative mating - people picking spouses with similar educational achievements and incomes - has been pronounced.
Today, across the member countries of the OECD, 40 per cent of couples in which both partners work belong to the same or a neighbouring earnings bracket, compared with 33 per cent two decades ago, a 2011 report by the agency shows. Nearly two-thirds of couples have the same level of educational attainment (in 15 per cent of the cases, the wife is more educated than her husband).
Doctors used to marry nurses. Now doctors marry doctors.
So while husbands and wives have become more equal, inequality between families appears to be on the rise. As Christine R Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, puts it: "Marriages are increasingly likely to consist of two high- or two lowearning partners, " rather than of one of each.
Looking at data on married couples in the United States from 1967 to 2005, Dr Schwartz found that increases in general earnings inequality over that period would have been between 25 per cent and 30 per cent lower in the absence of more assortative mating.
Potentially widening the gap between rich and poor families further is the fact that women nearer the top of the income distribution have increased their hours of paid work relatively more than women nearer the bottom.
That's explosive stuff, particularly at a time of recession and austerity, when rising income inequality is in the spotlight anyway and the temptation of populism fierce.
The trouble is that while marriage patterns are among the most powerful drivers of social mobility, there is very little you can do about them. Women now earn about 60 per cent of all graduate degrees in rich countries. Of course they are more likely to marry men of similar educational background;they meet them at college.
"Relationships are not policy material, " said Willem Adema, a social policy specialist at the OECD. "You have no real lever in this area. "
So does gender equality inevitably foster greater income inequality? Not necessarily.
One nuance is that while assortative mating has raised inequality, female labour market participation has actually lowered it, on average outweighing the effect across the OECD. The widening gulf between male earnings at the top and the bottom of the income distribution due to falling work hours and fast technological change helps explain why inequality on balance still grew.
Secondly, more gender equality creates greater economic resources not just within families but also at the government level: More and more educated women in work mean a more productive economy and greater tax revenues, thus over time providing politicians with additional financial muscle to give children of poorer families an extra boost.
The policy challenge then is to decide on the most effective way to level the playing field for the next generation.
In Britain, where social mobility is lower and income differences are greater than in most other European countries - and where a bout of youth rioting last August added urgency to the issue - Prime Minister David Cameron recently introduced a controversial pilot programme of parenting classes.
In three areas of the country, parents of children under the age of 6 now get £100, or about $155, in vouchers they can redeem for training on anything from "teething to tantrums, " and crucially, communicating with their babies.
"It's ludicrous that we should expect people to train for hours to drive a car or use a computer, but when it comes to looking after a baby, we tell people to just get on with it, " said Cameron, himself a father of three. "I would have loved more guidance when my children were babies. "
Critics say the proposal smacks of a nanny state wading too deeply into family affairs, but as Cameron said himself: "Parents are nation-builders."
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