All the recent talk of budget deficits may have you worried about the government’s hand in your pocket, but your pocket is not the only part of your pants you should be concerned about; financial decisions made on Capitol Hill have the potential to influence behavior in the bedrooms of the nation.
We all know the economic climate can determine if we are able to find, or keep, a job, how much money we take home from that job at the end of the day, and the prices we pay when we exchange that money for goods and services. And while it may not seem obvious, decisions made in the more intimate areas of our lives, like the decision to enter or exit a sexual relationship, are also influenced by those same economic conditions.
3. As college costs go up, teens have more sex partners.
For example, the outcome of current debates on how to set the interest rate on student loans, and other student funding issues, will impact cost of college and, as a result, teen promiscuity. This is because when teenagers have reason to be optimistic that they can afford to stay in school, they are more careful to avoid any sexual behavior that may later prevent them from achieving that goal. Washington State University economist Benjamin Cowan tested this theory and found that a $1,000 reduction in the price of a community college education decreases the number of sexual partners had by the average 17-year-old high school student by a remarkable 26%.
Of course, the opposite is also true. If the government decides to reduce funding to students or to increase the interest rates on student loans, many teenagers will lose hope of ever continuing their education after high school and lose their incentive to be sexually cautious as a result.
4. As taxes on the rich go down, divorce rates might go up.
Economist Robert Frank has shown that changes to tax codes that favored those with the highest incomes have contributed to the growing divide between the rich and the poor, and that increasing income inequality is contributing to divorce. Thus, the outcome of the debate on whether, and by how much, to tax those in the highest income brackets has the power to influence how many marriages will stand the test of time.
The reason is this: As the rich get richer, everyone else races to keep up with their level of conspicuous consumption, buying expensive products they can’t really afford. Excess consumption puts stress on families — people start working longer hours, making longer commutes to work so they can own bigger homes, and bankruptcies become more common. Not surprisingly, this race to consume, and the financial hardship it causes, puts a big strain on marriages.
Frank and his coauthors find that in U.S. counties where inequality is high, divorce rates are high as well; a 1% increase in inequality in a county is associated with a 1.2% increase in the proportion of people in that county who are divorced. In the 10-year period from 1990 to 2000, the increase in income inequality that was, in part, created by favorable taxes for the wealthy was responsible for a 5% increase in the number of divorces.
5. And as housing prices go down, so do divorce rates.
Also on the topic of divorce, cuts to the funding of Federal Housing Administration and the proposed introduction of a cap on the mortgage interest deductions have the potential to slow the recovery of the housing markets. And when housing prices are low, people are less likely to get divorced. According to research by Martin Farnham, Lucie Schmidt, and Purvi Sevak, the emotional barrier to selling the family home at a loss has been encouraging people to hang onto their homes and stay in their marriages, in the hope of reducing that financial loss in the future.
They find that a 10% decrease in house prices decreases the divorce rate of college-educated couples (those who are more likely to be home owners) by 29%; keeping house prices low for a longer period may help keep the divorce rate low.
6. As unemployment benefits go down, cohabitation could go up.
Cuts to extended unemployment insurance benefits that are being rolled in with sequestration can create incentives for couples to take their relationships to the next level. According to a report by Rose Kreider at the U.S. Census bureau, many more couples than in the past started living together during the recent recession, and the biggest increase was in couples with at least one person (usually a man) unemployed; 24% of the newly created couples were ones in which the man was out of work.
This increase in cohabitation in a recession shows that living together is one way individuals cope financially when they are out of work; women and men who are not necessarily interested in marrying are prepared to provide temporary housing to their lovers when times are hard. When unemployment benefits are cut, it becomes harder for couples to maintain two independent dwellings and for women, primarily, to refuse unemployed boyfriends who need a place to live until they can get back on their feet financially.
7. As taxes on alcohol rise, STD rates go down.
One final proposal on the table, to increase in the federal excise tax on beer, wine, and spirits, has already been shown to directly influence sexual behavior. In January 1991, this same tax was doubled and, according a study by Harrell Chesson at the Center for Disease Control, that increase in taxes reduced the level of alcohol-induced sexual behavior. His evidence is pretty convincing; nationwide gonorrhea rates fell almost 30% and syphilis rates fell by 40% in the year following the increase in alcohol taxes.
Does all this mean if in a few years’ time your marriage has ended, your teenage daughter is sleeping around, and your unemployed son is living with his girlfriend that you can blame the federal budget? Unlikely. But whether we like it or not, the outcome of the current budget debate will ultimately influence how we as individuals choose to conduct our personal sex lives. Now, if someone ever figures out how to collect a sex tax, we will all have something to worry about.
Marina Adshade’s first book, Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love, was published in March.