Kearney Drills Down on Fracking and Marriage

By Ashley Serpa – Regions experiencing a decrease in economic opportunity for men typically also see a decrease in marriage rates. So why didn’t the fracking boom lead to more marriages in places like Appalachia? On October 5, 2017, in a lecture entitled "Male Earnings, Marriageable Men, and Non-Marital Fertility: Evidence from the Fracking Boom," Melissa Kearney investigated.

In the middle of the twentieth century, trade shocks began gutting the United States’ manufacturing base. The loss of these well-paid and seemingly secure jobs had implications beyond economics—this period also witnessed a decline in marriage in the places most affected by the shocks. At the same time, these areas also saw a rise in the number of single mothers.

Melissa Kearney—a professor of economics at the University of Maryland who spoke at the invitation of the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research—explored whether the fracking boom, which began in the 2000s, had the opposite effect. To do so, she gathered marriage and family-formation data in Appalachia to see if, in areas where non-college educated men gained new and better-paid job opportunities, marriage and family-formation rates shifted in a meaningful way.

Interestingly, the data showed no marked increase in marriage rates in areas affected by the fracking boom. Furthermore, marital and non-marital “birthshares” (children born in and out of wedlock, respectively) went up in equal measure—not the drop in single mothers one might expect. These outcomes differ from those observed after the coal boom of the 1970s. That boom occurred the same region and in a similar industry, but with very different results—specifically, an increase in the marriage rate.

Economic and cultural factors

Some economists believe economic factors explain the changes seen in the data on family formation during the fracking boom. Others, meanwhile, believe that cultural factors also play a role in marriage rates. Kearney agrees with both, and suggested several explanations for why the region most influenced by the fracking boom did not also see an increase in the rate of marriage.

First, she proposed that the decades following the trade shocks, and the loss of manufacturing jobs that accompanied them, ushered in a new social paradigm that may have diminished some citizens’ desire to marry. Second, she explained that the fracking boom didn’t only increase economic opportunities for the mostly male workers in the fracking industry—towns surrounding these gas deposits also experienced a ripple effect. This caused women working in unrelated industries to see an increase in earnings, making them less likely to seek out the additional income of a partner.

Finally, Kearney stated that it is possible that people working in the fracking industry feared their jobs were only temporary and therefore too unstable to guarantee long-term support for families. This may have encouraged some individuals to hold off on marriage despite the economic opportunities fracking brings.

Beyond environmental analysis

Public discussions about fracking generally center around concerns over its impact on the environment. Kearney’s talk suggested that we ought to consider how the U.S. can support more stable and less environmentally damaging industries that provide economic opportunities in places that need them most. At the very least, Kearney’s work is a valuable contribution to deliberations over how social scientists weigh economics and culture in their subjects’ decision-making process. 

Learn more about Melissa Kearney.