Male Earnings, Marriageable Men, and Non-Marital Fertility: Evidence from the Fracking Boom

Kearney, Melissa and Riley Wilson , Review of Economics and Statistics , February 2018.

There has been a well-documented retreat from marriage among less educated individuals in the U.S. and non-marital childbearing has become the norm among young mothers and mothers with low levels of education. One hypothesis is that the declining economic position of men in these populations is at least partially responsible for these trends. We consider the reverse hypothesis that an increase in potential earnings of less-educated men would lead to an increase in the marriage rate and a decrease in the non-marital birth rate. To investigate this possibility, we empirically exploit the positive economic shock associated with hydraulic fracking. We confirm that local-area fracking production led to increased wages and jobs for non-college-educated men. A reduced form analysis reveals that in response to local-area fracking production, both marital and non-marital birth rates increase, but there is no evidence of an increase in marriage rates. The pattern of results is consistent with a positive income effect on births, but no associated increase in marriage. We compare our findings to the family formation response to the Appalachian coal boom experience of the 1970s and 1980s, when it appears that marital births and marriage rates increased, but non-marital births did not. This contrast potentially suggests important interactions between economic forces and social context.

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