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Do State Laws Affect the Age of Marriage? A Cautionary Tale About Avoidance Behavior


  • Rebecca M. Blank
  • Kerwin Kofi Charles
  • James M. Sallee


This paper investigates the response of young people in the United States to state laws dictating the minimum age at which individuals could marry, with and without parental consent. We use variation across states and over time to document behavioral responses to laws governing the age of marriage using both administrative records from the Vital Statistics and retrospective reports from the U.S. Census. We find evidence that state laws delayed the marriages of some young people, but the effects are much smaller in Census data than in Vital Statistics records. This discrepancy appears to be driven by systematic avoidance behavior of two kinds. First, some young people marry outside their state of residence, in states with less restrictive laws. Second, many young people appear to have evaded minimum age of marriage laws by misrepresenting age on their marriage certificate. This avoidance was especially pronounced in earlier years, when few states required documented proof of age and when there was greater gain to marrying out of state because of wider variation in laws. Our results have important implications about the quality of administrative data when it is poorly monitored; about the effect of laws when agents can avoid them; and about the validly of estimates using cross-state variation in laws as an instrumental variable. By contrasting two data sources, we achieve a more complete picture of behavioral response than would be possible with either one alone.

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  • Rebecca M. Blank & Kerwin Kofi Charles & James M. Sallee, 2007. "Do State Laws Affect the Age of Marriage? A Cautionary Tale About Avoidance Behavior," NBER Working Papers 13667, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:13667
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Asplund, Marcus & Friberg, Richard & Wilander, Fredrik, 2007. "Demand and distance: Evidence on cross-border shopping," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 91(1-2), pages 141-157, February.
    2. Daniel Klepinger & Shelly Lundberg & Robert Plotnick, 1999. "How Does Adolescent Fertility Affect the Human Capital and Wages of Young Women?," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 34(3), pages 421-448.
    3. Slemrod, Joel, 1992. "Do Taxes Matter? Lessons from the 1980's," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 82(2), pages 250-256, May.
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    Cited by:

    1. Gordon Dahl, 2010. "Early teen marriage and future poverty," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 47(3), pages 689-718, August.
    2. Kasey Buckles & Melanie Guldi & Joseph Price, 2011. "Changing the Price of Marriage: Evidence from Blood Test Requirements," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 46(3), pages 539-567.
    3. Mircea Trandafir, 2014. "The Effect of Same-Sex Marriage Laws on Different-Sex Marriage: Evidence From the Netherlands," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 51(1), pages 317-340, February.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • C81 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Data Collection and Data Estimation Methodology; Computer Programs - - - Methodology for Collecting, Estimating, and Organizing Microeconomic Data; Data Access
    • H73 - Public Economics - - State and Local Government; Intergovernmental Relations - - - Interjurisdictional Differentials and Their Effects
    • J12 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Marriage; Marital Dissolution; Family Structure

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