I recently had students in a class I am teaching watch The Wedding Banquet, one of Ang Lee's early films. In it, a well-off immigrant man from Taiwan, who is now an American citizen, enters into a marriage of convenience with a Chinese immigrant artist who cannot pay her rent and is on the verge of being deported. The marriage is convenient for the man because he is gay and not out to his parents, who are insisting on a marriage and a grandchild. And it is convenient for the woman because she gets to stay in America and live off the wealth of her husband.
A certain amount of wealth, it seems, is convenient in a marriage of convenience. But what happens when we think about this in the opposite way? How does a lack of wealth shape marriages of convenience and the decision to marry more generally?
A recent study suggests that a lack of wealth is an important factor among low-income men who decide not to get married. Among 25- to 34-year-old white men in the 2000 census, 34 percent in the bottom quarter of income distribution were married, compared to 67 percent in the top distribution.
In a summary of the work she did with Sara McLanahan, Tara Watson, an economist at Williams College, provides an explanation.
"We suspect that low-income couples aspire to achieve a certain economic status before deciding to marry, and that the level of income they need is determined in part by those around them. We propose an identity model (similar to that of George A. Akerlof and Rachel E. Kranton, 2000) to explain the phenomenon. Couples prefer to identify as a member of the category 'married people' only if they fulfill the financial prescriptions associated with marriage. One couple interviewed in the Gibson-Davis study kept their marriage a secret because they still lived with relatives. As the husband put it: 'How do I tell everybody that I'm married, but I'm broke? Or I'm married, but I don't have no place?'"
In other words, the failure to keep up with the Joneses means not getting married.
As it gets more and more difficult to keep up with the Joneses in these recessionary times, we can add marriage as one more victim of our current economic crisis. And as we learn more about how the recession is affecting people at all levels of the economic ladder, it will be interesting to see not only how the decision to marry is affected, but also how marriage is depicted in the culture at large.
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