Misdirection on Assortative Mating and Income Inequality

This is a story about misdirection, how authors contort their analysis to answer a question no one is asking but make it seem as if they are answering an important current question, such as ‘why has income inequality increased?’. The consequence is to be grossly misleading or, worse, to present conclusions that are directly opposite of what one’s data show.

The paper in question is titled “US income inequality and assortative marriages” and written by Jeremy Greenwood, Nezih Guner, Georgi Kocharkov, and Cezar Santos for VoxEU.org. The research relates to an increase in positive assortative mating: “how likely a person is to marry someone of similar educational background. Since education is an important determinant of income, these patterns of matching might have an impact on the economy’s distribution of income.” Basically, if higher income men are now more likely to marry higher income women then household income inequality will grow.

The authors conclude that “rising assortative mating together with increasing labour-force participation by married women [emphasis added by me] are important in order to account for the determinants of growth in household income inequality in the US.” So, right out of the gate, a key influence not trumpeted in the headline (rising labour-force participation by married women) is introduced. But we’ll stick with the findings on assortative mating for now. The authors compare assortative mating in 2005 to that of 1960. The selection of the dates for comparison, 1960 and 2005, determines their story and they choose a misleading one. They show their key finding in the very first graph, presented below, which uses Kendall’s tau statistic to measure the relationship between husband’s and wife’s educational levels. The higher the tau statistic ‘the higher is the degree of positive assortative mating.”

The authors conclude from this graph that “while the series is not increasing throughout the entire period, the statistic is clearly higher in 2005 relative to 1960.” The increase in positive assortative mating is then shown to contribute to a rise in income inequality between 1960 and 2005.

I am confident that we will be reading conservative columnists and politicians using this research to claim that income inequality was caused by demographic trends and not by changes in the distribution of economic rewards. That would be an inappropriate conclusion. Why? Simply because the question that should be answered is why income inequality grew a great deal between 1979 and now and was fairly stable before then (the share of income, including capital gains, going to the top 10 percent was 32.2 percent in 1960, 33.5 percent in 1980 and rose to 46.6 percent by 2005). Greenwood et al.’s data show that positive assortative mating declined(!) from 1980 to 2005, which directly tells us that this phenomenon did not cause any of the income inequality generated after 1980: in fact, positive assortative mating was a force that equalized incomes after 1980. It was in the period from 1960 to 1980 that positive assortative mating lead to more unequal incomes. Consequently, their research in no way lifts up the role of ‘like marrying like’ in generating inequality since 1980: it actually means that economic inequalities overcame an equalizing demographic factor and that the inequality of economic outcomes had an even larger impact than we might have thought. The title of the VoxEU piece, “US income inequality and assortative marriages,” may seem like it’s answering a relevant question, but it isn’t: No one is trying to figure out why income inequality is greater now than in 1960, and interest in a factor that increased inequality between 1960 and 1980 but was equalizing post-1980 is definitely not informative about current inequality trends.

This is very similar to the sleight-of-hand used in articles bragging how incomes are greater now than in 1960, which is true but pretty misleading since the vast amount of that income growth for a typical family occurred between 1960 and 1973. That’s not quite relevant, right? The fact that assortative mating may have generated more inequality between 1960 and 1980 is similarly irrelevant to current day discussions of income inequality. Unless, that is, you are trying to mislead people.

  • Thanks. I didn’t have time to critique that article.

  • Dan Helphrey

    It should also be noted that women’s educational attainment has been a big story since 1960 – a lot more college-educated men used to marry non-college-educated women simply because there weren’t that many of them. If one were to compare husbands’ educational attainment to their wives’ brothers, or the educational attainment of both the husbands’ and wives’ fathers, my guess is it would show little change in people marrying outside their class.

  • Bobby_Goren

    Great post. Thanks for the explanation. Here’s another thought – even if assortative mating increased inequality within the bottom 90% of the population, it doesn’t explain the BIG jump.

    Admittedly, the difference in income between they typical two high school and two graduate school wage earner households is large. Based on a mean 2005 income of 63,344, these hypothetical couples would earn about $53K (83% of mean) and $139K (219% of mean), respectively. Significant – but hardly an astronomical difference.

    However, we know that the real growth has been in people in
    the top 1%, particularly the top 0.1% – incomes that START at $379K and $1.9 million, respectively (IRS, 2005). That’s the real inequality story. It takes a lot of two PhD couples to make one hedge fund manager.

  • Mary Lignoul Robinson

    Great post. Surely the authors were aware of their sleight of hand. The study should have reported accurately that assortative mating is not a likely cause of inequality. What is their motivation for this? If you are a true scientist, you want the truth, not to make your case. We need truth to make the best decisions – or we will pay for it later. That’s the whole point of science – to get a more accurate understanding of the world so you can predict better and take the right actions. . We are all worse off for this misleading conclusion. Harm has been done.

    This sort of “science” is tarnishing the reputation of all scientists. Perhaps the correlation between the decline of unions and inequality is a stronger one, but they are not interested in that, because that is not consistent with their politics? Who funded this work? Are these researchers just paid to come up with evidence for a predetermined conclusion? If so, what is the point in pretending there is any validity to research in the economic field.

  • Dr Princeton

    Clearly Dr Mishel didn’t bother read the original research paper; it is only six pages long too! First, the authors state that “The change in wages across individuals is the primary driver of this increase in income inequality.” Second, Kendall’s tau is not the only measure they use to capture the increase in assortative mating. The more formal statistical analysis shows an unambiguous rise in assortative mating across the entire time period. Look at the other two measure they show in their figure 1, especially in the lefthand side panel that illustrates the rise using conventional regression analysis. This statistically controls for the rise in educational attainment, as Dan Helphrey asks about. The rise in assortative mating has been confirmed by other social
    scientists, such as Christine Schwartz at Dr Mishel’s alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. She is a young star in sociology. Third, to answer Mary Lignoul Robinson’s question, The American Economic Review, where this work is forthcoming, requires that all financial support for research must be acknowledged. This work was supported by the European Research Council, part of the European Union, as noted upfront in the research report. The work states no political or public policy opinions.

  • larry stern

    The VoxEu piece is actually very nice. Mishel misrepresented it.

  • larry stern

    Ps Your link is broken.

  • Jennifer Walker


    U clearly missed the point of the paper.

  • Elmer F

    Most marriages last more than one year- so increase in absolute level of assortative mating since 1960 is still pushing up today’s income inequality.

  • Mamata

    Am glad this article explains why social science is not considered scientific. It has become a tool to peddle agendas.

    When has mating EVER been non-assortative? It makes no sense to compare incomes of husbands vs their wives because many women did not have access to education and employment. That does not mean they did not marry within their class. The use of this statistic to show that mating is MORE assortative today than in our parents’ time is simply not valid.

    Even in the fairly tale Cinderalla- recall that Cinderalla is not a real servant but the legitimate daughter of a rich man. People marrying within their classes classes is not new- am surprised I even have to say this- so it is not possible that assortative mating is NOW, causing income inequality. Both have existed before our ancestors left Africa.