Early Marriage Opinion Essay Template

Teenagers see the world in a different way than adults usually do; their perception is sharper, and they eagerly embrace new experiences. However, due to various reasons, such as the false assurance in the stability of relationships, accidental pregnancy, cultural conditioning and other factors, teenage couples may make a decision to get married. And though teenage marriages are legal in almost all countries, they can be conjoined with a set of issues that require closer attention.

Marriage is not all about love, being in a relationship, and understanding; it also has a much more grounded side, which is finance. Whereas people who get married as an adult, after they already have a job and a separate place to live, teenagers are much more often dependent on their parents in the financial sphere. Adolescents are neither well-educated, nor experienced enough to get a well-paid job to support their own families; thus, they have to rely on their parents, who often have little opportunity to help their children financially (RelationshipStudies.edu). In addition, teenagers are less skilled in operating their finances; in relation to this, one should also consider that teenagers are one of the main target audiences in the modern consumerist culture. Stated succinctly, the number of material temptations teenagers are exposed is countless. As a result, an issue with money can easily become an overwhelming problem in a young family, thus ruining the relationship.

The situation can get even more difficult in case a teenage couple has a child. According to the statistics, accidental pregnancy is one of the leading reasons of teenage marriages (Marriage Issues). The lifelong task of raising a child can be a complicated decision even for a self-sufficient adult person, as it is a great responsibility that implies facing and solving financial, psychological, organizational, and other issues. At the same time, teenagers are less likely to be able to cope with these difficulties. Adolescents have to take care of another human being while being (to a certain degree) children themselves.

Being educated is a must for any person living in the West, as it is difficult to find a job without having a diploma—at least in the United States. At the same time, marriage (and to an even greater extent, pregnancy) is one of the main obstacles that prevent adolescents from graduating from schools. According to statistics, more than half of teen mothers never graduate from high school; this makes teen parenthood one of the leading reasons for young parents to drop out of school (Do Something). Assuming that education is not just a system of random facts collected from various scientific fields, but also communication, interaction, and gaining experience of living in society as a citizen, teenage parents deprive themselves of chances to obtain vital social skills; in its turn, it may become a negative factor when raising children.

Teenage marriages tend to end up with divorce much more often than matrimony contracted as an adult. According to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 percent of those who marry before 18 are likely to divorce within 10 years, compared with 24 percent of those who marry after the age of 25 (The New York Times).

Although teenage relationships and marriages have often been romanticized, and even though they are legal, still they can be an adverse choice for adolescent couples, due to the fact that marriage implies a higher degree of responsibility than an adolescent can take. Not to mention the difficulties conjoined with unintended pregnancy, teenage families have to face a number of financial problems, as they often have little or no chances to find a well-paid job to sustain their family. Besides, marriage and parenthood is one of the leading reasons for teenagers not to graduate from high school; this means that teenagers deprive themselves of a basic education and the necessary skills of socialization and interaction. In addition, according to the statistics, teenage marriages are prone to divorce 48% more often than those contracted while adults. Therefore, for teenagers, marriage is a decision to revise.


Kershaw, Sarah. “Now, the Bad News on Teenage Marriage.” The New York Times. N.p., 3 Sept. 2008. Web. 8 Jan. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/04/fashion/04marriage.html?_r=0>.

“11 Facts About Teen Pregnancy.” Do Something. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Jan. 2014. <http://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/11-facts-about-teen-pregnancy>.

James, Sarah. “Money and Other Non-Romantic Things in Relationships.” RelationshipStudies.edu. N.p., 12 Sept. 2009. Web. 08 Jan. 2014.

Davids, Norman. “Why Do Teens Marry?” Marriage Issues. N.p., 13 Aug. 2011. Web. 08 Jan. 2014.

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State Marriage, Schooling, and Labor Laws

The OLS estimates presented in the previous section potentially suffer from both omitted variable bias and measurement error. One solution to these problems is to use an instrumental variables approach. Ideally, instruments would induce exogenous variation in early teen marriage but would be uncorrelated with unobserved characteristics that affect both poverty and the decision to marry young. Similarly, the instruments would induce exogenous variation in high school graduation but be orthogonal to the error term in the poverty equation. I use changes in state marriage, schooling, and labor laws over time as instruments for early marriage and dropping out of high school. By preventing some teens who would like to marry or drop out of high school from doing so, these legal restrictions can help identify the causal effects on poverty free of selection bias.

In the United States, wide variation has historically existed regarding the minimum age individuals are legally allowed to marry. The laws that regulate teenage marriage have appeared in the World Almanac and Book of Facts starting in the late 1800s. Since 1935, information has consistently been reported on the minimum marriage age with parental (or court) consent, separately for males and females. I collected this information annually for the years 1935 to 1969 for the 41 states with reliable information on marriage laws during this time period.7

There are two sets of laws specifying minimum age requirements for marriage. The first is the minimum age with parental (or court) consent, while the other is the minimum age without parental consent. In this article, I focus on the marriage age laws with parental consent, partly because there is little variation over time or across states in the laws without parental consent during the period of my data. Prior to 1971, approximately 80% of states specified an age of 18 for marriage without parental consent for women, and approximately 85% specified an age of 21 for men. In 1971, men and women were granted the right to vote at age 18, which seems to have spurred most states to change their statutes for the legal age of marriage without parental consent for both men and women to age 18. (For a discussion and an interesting analysis of these laws, see Blank, Charles, and Sallee 2008.)

Laws with parental consent do not eliminate all early teenage marriages. Some teens may find ways to lie about their age or may travel to states with lower age requirements to get married. In addition, in most states, the marriage law specifies that the courts have the right to grant exceptions to women based on “moral” and “welfare” arguments (as explained in the footnotes to tables in the World Almanac and Book of Facts, various years). These statutes imply that a judge could grant permission for an early teenage marriage if the teenage woman was pregnant. How often judges actually granted exceptions is hard to know ex post facto, but given the relatively low rate of illegitimate births and abortions during much of this period, exceptions for pregnancy were probably common.

The fact that restrictive laws do not prevent 100% of early teenage marriages does not make them invalid instruments. Rather, the strength of the instrument set is that restrictive state laws make it harder to marry young, thereby preventing some fraction of teen marriages that otherwise would have occurred.

I also use the compulsory schooling and labor laws originally collected by Acemoglu and Angrist (2001) and subsequently modified by Goldin and Katz (2003). These laws typically specify a minimum age or amount of schooling before a youth can drop out of school or obtain a work permit. Using Goldin and Katz’s approach, compulsory school attendance is defined as the minimum of (1) the required years of schooling before dropping out and (2) the difference between the minimum dropout age and the maximum enrollment age (lagged 8 years). Child labor is defined as the maximum of (1) the required years of schooling before receiving a work permit and (2) the difference between the minimum work age and the maximum enrollment age (lagged 8 years). The value of the marriage, schooling, and labor laws assigned to a woman are based on the set of laws for her birth state that are in force when she would have been age 15.

Table 2 summarizes the changes in these laws across five-year time periods (in the regression analysis, year-by-year values are used). A more detailed listing by state and year for the early marriage laws can be found in Dahl (2005), and for the compulsory schooling and child labor laws in Acemoglu and Angrist (2001) and Goldin and Katz (2003). For the period 1935–1939, 41% of states specified that a woman had to be 16 or older before marrying. Over time, several states raised their age requirements, so that by 1965–1969, 70% of states required a woman to be at least 16 before marrying. Summarizing the law changes another way, the average minimum marriage age across states was 14.6 years at the beginning of the sample period, but rose by approximately one year to 15.7 years by the end of the sample. There have also been similar increases in the requirements governing school attendance and child labor. In 1935–1939, 24% of states required at least nine years of compulsory schooling; by 1965–1969, this rose to 63% of states. Similarly, in 1935–1939, only 2% of states had a child labor requirement of nine years or more; by 1965–1969, 38% of states had such a requirement. Later in the article, I will also investigate the impact of divorce and use unilateral divorce laws as instruments, although the table reveals that few states enacted unilateral divorce laws prior to 1970.

Table 2

Summary of State Laws by Time Period, With Tests for Independence of the Laws

Table 2 also reports the results of chi-square tests for the pairwise independence of the marriage, schooling, labor, and divorce laws. These tests all strongly reject the null hypothesis that the various state laws are independent. Although not shown, the interrelated nature of the marriage and schooling/labor laws cannot be attributed solely to trends over time. After time trends in the laws are regressed out, the state laws are still highly related.

Since the marriage, schooling, and labor laws affecting youth are so highly correlated, it could be important to account for all three simultaneously when estimating instrumental variable regression models. Past research has used the compulsory schooling and child labor laws as instruments for education in models describing human capital externalities (Acemoglu and Angrist 2001), crime (Lochner and Moretti 2004), mortality (Lleras-Muney 2005), intergenerational transmission of human capital (Oreopoulos, Page, and Stevens 2006), and fertility (Black, Devereux, and Salvanes 2004; Leon 2004). In many of these applications, there may not be a need to instrument for early teen marriage. However, for some outcomes, part of the observed effects might be due to changes in marriage laws (and early marriage rates) but mistakenly attributed to changes in compulsory schooling laws (and education levels) instead. In the IV regressions that follow, I use all three sets of laws in poverty regressions that instrument for early marriage and high school completion.

The Impact of State Laws on Early Teen Marriage

How effective are state-specific marriage laws at restricting the age individuals marry? Other work has examined the effectiveness of compulsory schooling and child labor laws on high school graduation and is not repeated here (see Acemoglu and Angrist 2001; Goldin and Katz 2003; Lleras-Muney 2002; Lochner and Moretti 2004; Margo and Finegan 1996). The combined census samples reveal that restrictive laws are associated with a smaller number of early teen marriages (i.e., marriages occurring before age 16). In states with legal minima of 12–13, 14, 15, and 16+, the percentage of women who are early teen brides is, respectively, 6.5%, 4.3%, 3.5%, and 2.9%.8 Of course, these differences could partly be due to time trends or variation across states with differing laws. In the IV regressions appearing in the next section, these factors will be accounted for.

Are the laws actually reducing the number of teen marriages, or would states with restrictive laws naturally have lower teen marriage rates anyway? If states’ laws actually prevent early teen marriages, one would expect to see a jump in the number of marriages occurring immediately after the specified minimum age. I use the 1968 and 1969 Vital Statistics Marriage Detail files, which collect data from marriage certificates, to examine the timing of teen marriages.9 For women who married between the ages of 14 and 16 in 1968 or 1969, Figure 3 plots the fraction of women marrying at different ages (measured in two-month intervals) who are residents of states with different legal age minima.

Figure 3

The Timing of Marriages for Women by Type of State Marriage Law, 1968 and 1969 Vital Statistics Marriage Certificate Data

Sharp increases in the fraction marrying occur where expected, assuming the laws are enforced. For example, in states where the legal minimum is 14 years, a fair number of women actually marry at this young age. Moreover, there is not much of a jump in marriages once women turn age 15. In contrast, in states where the legal minimum is 15 years, there is a sudden rise in the number of marriages immediately after women reach the minimum age of 15. For another example, consider women marrying at age 16. In the third graph, where the legal minimum age is 16, there is a sharp and large increase in the number of marriages occurring immediately after women turn 16. In comparison, the rise surrounding age 16 is much less pronounced in states with minimum ages of 14 or especially 15.10 The graphs suggest that restrictive state laws effectively delay or prevent at least some early teen marriages.

Another way to test whether state laws impact the probability of marrying young is to see whether teens travel to a state with a lower age requirement to get married. If so, this is an indication that restrictive laws impose costs on those wishing to marry before the law in their state of residence allows. Some young teens will cross state lines, while others will be deterred by these costs. The extent to which teens cross state lines to marry in states with more permissive laws can be examined using the residence state and marriage state information in the Vital Statistics data sets.

Before looking at the entire United States, first consider the case for women residing in Tennessee. Tennessee is a long, narrow state, with population centers scattered throughout the state. Tennessee had an age requirement of 16 years for women to marry in 1968 and 1969, the period for which Vital Statistics data are available. Tennessee is bordered by eight states with varying age minima. Six of these states have valid marriage certificate and marriage law information.11 If the marriage age law at that time was binding in Tennessee, we might expect to see that those who wanted to marry earlier than the law allowed in Tennessee to travel to Alabama, Mississippi, or Missouri, where the age minimum was lower. However, we should not see as many prospective teen brides traveling to Georgia, Kentucky, or Virginia, where the age requirement of 16 was the same as in Tennessee.

The pattern of out-of-state marriages strongly supports the idea that Tennessee teens traveled to bordering states with more permissive laws in order to marry young (data not shown). Twenty-two percent of women from Tennessee who married before the age of 16 traveled to Alabama, Mississippi, or Missouri to marry, compared with only 4% who traveled to Georgia, Kentucky, or Virginia. This is not because Alabama, Mississippi, and Missouri are more convenient or attractive places to get married in general, however. For Tennessee brides who married at age 16, 4% traveled to Alabama, Mississippi, or Missouri; this compares with 18% who traveled to Georgia, Kentucky, or Virginia. It appears that the set of neighboring states with an age requirement identical to Tennessee’s are the preferred marriage destinations, but that brides wishing to marry below the age of 16 go out of their way to marry in a state with a lower age requirement.12

Table 3 extends the Tennessee analysis of out-of-state marriages to all of the states in the sample. I categorize women based on the earliest age they can marry in their state of residence with their parents’ consent. I then tabulate the percentage of women who marry (1) in their state of residence, (2) in a state with a lower minimum age than their residence state, and (3) in a state with an equal or higher minimum age than their residence state. For women who married between the ages of 12 and 15, 15.3% of those living in states with a legal minimum age of 16 went to states with lower age limits to marry. In contrast, individuals living in states with legal minima of 13, 14, or 15 years were much more likely to remain in their residence state to marry (only 5% traveled outside their residence state to marry).

Table 3

Pattern of Out-of-State Marriages by Restrictiveness of State Laws, 1968 and 1969 Vital Statistics Marriage Certificate Data

Of course, the patterns observed in the top panel of Table 3 could be the result of the location of states with various laws or the general attractiveness of marrying in different states. To control for this possibility, in the middle panel of Table 3, I tabulate marriage patterns for women who married at age 16. For these women, the marriage laws should not be binding. Indeed, fewer of the women facing an age minimum of 16 left their residence states to marry. In contrast to the top panel, women in states with laws specifying a legal minimum of 16 who chose to marry outside their states of residence were much more likely to marry in states with an equal or higher minimum age law.

A simple difference-in-differences estimate makes clear that women crossed state lines to marry young. To construct the estimate, I first compare the fraction of women who married in a state with a lower minimum versus a higher minimum. Subtracting this difference for women who married between ages 12 and 15 from the difference for women who married at age 16 yields the estimate. For states with a marriage age requirement of 13 or 14, the difference in difference is close to 0 and not significant, as expected. For states with an age minimum of 15, the estimated difference in difference is 4.6% and is significantly different from 0. An even greater contrast shows up for the states specifying a minimum age of 16, with a large and significant estimate of 14.0%. These results imply that restrictive marriage laws increase the costs to potential teen brides and likely prevent some desired early teen marriages.

As a final check on the validity of the laws as instruments, I explore the timing of law changes. One potential concern is that states that pass more restrictive laws would have experienced larger reductions in early teen marriage rates even in the absence of a law change. However, if law changes are exogenous, then future values of the laws should not affect current early marriage rates conditional on current laws.13 To check this, I add the state laws in place 10 years in the future into a regression describing early teen marriage rates, where the regression also includes the current set of laws (and the full set of controls appearing in the baseline IV specification in Table 4). The results from this exercise indicate that future laws do not significantly determine current early marriage rates, while current laws do. The F statistic for the effect of future laws is 0.92 (p value = .44), while the F statistic for the effect of current laws is 14.6 (p value = .01).

Table 4

Baseline Instrumental Variables Estimates of the Effects of Early Teen Marriage and Dropping Out of High School on Poverty

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