Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Housing policy and marriage: evidence from Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia

At a time when young people in MENA countries face an increasingly protracted and difficult transition to adulthood, how can housing policy help them to marry and form independent households? This column explains how reforms to the rental housing market in Egypt helped to reverse a trend towards later marriages.

In a nutshell

Young people in MENA countries struggle to signal their economic readiness for marriage and, in particular, to obtain housing.

Rental housing offers a speedier alternative to homeownership, but rental units are not necessarily available or affordable.

The effect of Egypt’s ‘new rent’ law on young people’s age at marriage shows how policy reforms in housing markets can facilitate their transition to adulthood.

Marriage is a fundamental step into adulthood in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Readiness for marriage requires securing substantial resources (Salem, 2014, 2015; Singerman, 2007). Struggles to do that have led to frustrating delays, part of the regional challenge of waiting for adulthood or ‘waithood’ (Dhillon and Yousef, 2009).

The expectation of independent living

One factor contributing to waithood is that young people increasingly expect to live independently after marriage. Among couples in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia who were married in the latter half of the 2000s and the early 2010s, roughly four out of five adopted an independent, nuclear living arrangement at marriage. This is a higher rate than in previous generations (Assaad et al, 2017a; Salem, 2014, 2015).

The groom and his family are primarily responsible for securing housing (Dhillon et al, 2009). Housing is the largest component of marriage costs and the greatest challenge to secure in a number of MENA countries. For example, 71% of young people in Egypt identify the cost of housing as the main obstacle to marriage (Gebel and Heyne, 2014).

Housing requires the accumulation of large sums of money upfront and the difficulties of accumulating such resources delay marriage. For example, initial housing costs for Egyptian grooms consume around two full years of wages, and these costs were 28% of the marriage budget in 2012 (see Figure 1). Jordanians face a lower cost of housing at marriage: around half a year’s wages and only 9% of the marriage budget in 2010.

Less expensive housing may be one of the reasons why Jordanians have not experienced the same rising ages of marriage observed in other countries in the region (see Figure 2). In Jordan, the median age of marriage for men remained stable at around 26 for the cohorts born between 1960 and 1980. The median age for women in Jordan increased a little, but then levelled off at around 21.

In contrast, the median age at marriage for both men and women in Tunisia increased over time: from around 28 for men born in 1960 to 32 for those born in 1980. For men in Egypt, the median age at marriage was rising towards 28 for those born prior to 1972, but this trend then reversed with falling ages at marriage.

Implications of housing policy for the timing of marriage

So why did the marriage age for Egyptian men start to decline for those born from around 1972? Our research attributes this reversal to a reform in housing policy (Assaad et al, 2017b).

The ‘new rent’ law, which was passed in 1996, allowed for definite duration rental contracts and for landlords to change the rent at the end of the contract period (Assaad and Ramadan, 2008). This created efficiencies in the housing market and made it easier to acquire market-rate rental housing.

Figure 2 shows the trend of rising age at marriage among Egyptian young men reversing for those born around 1972. These men would have been approaching marriageable age – around 24 – in 1996 when the law was passed.

How can we be sure that the rental reform caused earlier marriages in Egypt? Our formal test of the effect of the law on the timing of marriage uses ‘difference-in-difference’ analysis (Assaad et al, 2017b). We compare men born in 1971 and earlier (who were not affected by the law) with those born in 1972 and later (who were affected by the law) by how prevalent rental and ‘new rent’ units were in their birthplace.

The introduction of the ‘new rent’ law accelerated marriage for young men born in 1972 and later. Men from areas with more rentals and more new rentals who were born from 1972 had a higher chance of marrying.

Specifically, a one standard deviation increase in the share of ‘new rent’ units in rentals raised the annual chance of marrying for men born starting in 1972 by 14%. A one standard deviation increase in the share of rental units in all housing also increased the annual chance of marrying for men born in 1972 or later by about 10%.

How does housing policy relate to marriage in other countries? Although we do not have policy reforms that we can study in Jordan or Tunisia, the patterns of housing policy and age at marriage suggest important links.

Ineffective housing policy in Tunisia may be related to the rising age at first marriage. Tunisia removed rent controls in the 1970s, but continues to have relatively low rates of rental due to strong tenancy rights, which make eviction difficult (Hammam, 2014). Although there are limited data on housing affordability in Tunisia, research suggests that the ratios of housing costs to income are fairly high (Beidas-Strom et al, 2009).

Among Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, it is Jordan that has the most flexible housing market. Jordan has a relatively high proportion of rentals in the tenure mix, relatively low ratios of initial housing costs to income, and low shares of initial housing costs in the total costs of marriage (Assaad et al, 2017b). Jordan is also the country with the lowest age at marriage.

What we can learn from the ‘new rent’ law

Young people in MENA countries struggle to signal their economic readiness for marriage and, in particular, to obtain housing. Rental housing may offer a speedier alternative to homeownership since it is an option that does not require as much money upfront. But rental units are not necessarily available or affordable, particularly in Tunisia and in Egypt prior to the passage of the ‘new rent’ law.

The effect of Egypt’s ‘new rent’ law on the timing of marriage shows how policy reforms in housing markets can facilitate the transition to marriage. If other countries improve their rental markets, such reforms may help young people to make more rapid and successful transitions to adulthood.

Further reading

Assaad, Ragui, Samir Ghazouani and Caroline Krafft (2017a) ‘Marriage, Fertility, and Women’s Agency in Tunisia’, ERF Working Paper.

Assaad, Ragui, Caroline Krafft and Dominique Rolando (2017b) ‘The Role of Housing Markets in the Timing of Marriage in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia’, ERF Working Paper No. 1081.

Assaad, Ragui, and Mohamed Ramadan (2008) ‘Did Housing Policy Reforms Curb the Delay in Marriage Among Young Men in Egypt?’, Middle East Youth Initiative Policy Outlook No. 1.

Beidas-Strom, Samya, Weicheng Lian and Ashwaq Maseeh (2009) ‘The Housing Cycle in Emerging Middle Eastern Economies and Its Macroeconomic Policy Implications’, IMF Working Paper No. 09/288.

Dhillon, Navtej, Paul Dyer and Tarik Yousef (2009) ‘Generation in Waiting: An Overview of School to Work and Family Formation Transitions’, in Generation in Waiting: The Unfulfilled Promise of Young People in the Middle East, Brookings Institution Press.

Dhillon, Navtej, and Tarik Yousef (2009) Generation in Waiting: The Unfulfilled Promise of Young People in the Middle East, Brookings Institution Press.

Gebel, Michael, and Stefanie Heyne (2014) Transitions to Adulthood in the Middle East and North Africa: Young Women’s Rising? Palgrave Macmillan.

Hammam, Sonia (2014) ‘Housing Matters’, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 6876.

Krafft, Caroline, and Ragui Assaad (2017) ‘Employment’s Role in Enabling and Constraining Marriage in the Middle East and North Africa’, ERF Working Paper No. 1080.

Salem, Rania (2014) ‘Trends and Differentials in Jordanian Marriage Behavior: Timing, Spousal Characteristics, Household Structure and Matrimonial Expenditures’, in The Jordanian Labour Market in the New Millennium, edited by Ragui Assaad, Oxford University Press.

Salem, Rania (2015) ‘Changes in the Institution of Marriage in Egypt from 1998 to 2012’, in The Egyptian Labor Market in an Era of Revolution edited by Ragui Assaad and Caroline Krafft, Oxford University Press.

Singerman, Diane (2007) ‘The Economic Imperatives of Marriage: Emerging Practices and Identities Among Youth in the Middle East.’ Middle East Youth Initiative Working Paper No. 6.

Initial housing costs in terms of years of grooms’ wages and as a percentage of total marriage costs in Egypt (2006, 2012) and Jordan (2010).

Most read

Recession without impact: why Lebanese elites delay reform

The survival of Lebanon’s political elites is highly dependent on the wellbeing of the economy. Why then do they delay necessary reform to avoid crisis? This column examines the role of politically connected firms in delaying much-needed economic stabilisation policies.

Arab countries are caught in an inequality trap

Conventional wisdom, based mainly on surveyed household income distribution statistics, suggests that inequality is generally low in Arab countries. At the same time, little attention has been devoted to social inequalities, whether in terms of outcomes or opportunities. This column introduces a forthcoming report, which offers a different narrative: based on the largest research project on the subject to date and covering 12 Arab countries, the authors argue that the region is caught in an inequality trap.

Fair competition is needed to empower women economically in the Arab world

The participation rates of women in the labour market in Arab countries are the lowest in the world. This column argues that remedying the under-representation of women in the labour force is a social and economic imperative for the region. There are three dimensions for action to realise the potential of Arab women: amending laws and regulations; instilling fair competition in markets; and promoting the digital economy.

Competition laws: a key role for economic growth in MENA

Competition policy lacks the attention it deserves in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region characterised by monopolies and lack of market contestability. As this column explains, there are many questions about the extent of anti-competitive barriers facing new market entrants in the region. What’s more, MENA’s weak overall performance on competition is likely to be hindering economic growth and the path towards structural transformation.

The Egyptian economy is still not creating good jobs

Growth in Egypt has recovered substantially since the downturn following the global financial crisis and the political instability following the 2011 revolution – but what has happened to jobs? This column reports the results on employment conditions from just released data in the 2018 wave of the Egypt Labor Market Panel Survey.

How Egyptian households cope with shocks: new evidence

Managing risks and reducing vulnerability to economic, social, environmental and health shocks enhances the wellbeing of households and encourages investment in human capital. This column explores the nature of shocks experienced by Egyptian households as well as the coping mechanisms that they use. It also examines the relationship between such risks and job formality and health status.

The future of Egypt’s population: opportunities and challenges

Egypt’s potential labour supply depends on the growth and changing composition of its working-age population. This column reports the latest data on labour supply and fertility rates, concluding that the country has a window of opportunity with reduced demographic pressures to try to address longstanding structural challenges for the labour market.

Egypt’s labour market: facts and prospects

An ERF policy conference on the Egyptian labour market in late October 2019 focused on gender and economic vulnerability. This column summarises the key takeaways from the event.

An appeal for Sudan’s future

Sudan today is on a knife-edge: it can evolve toward peace and democracy – or spiral into instability and violence. As this Project Syndicate column argues, vital and timely international assistance can make the difference between success and failure for the new government.

Domestic demand and competition: a new development paradigm for MENA

A lack of competition in domestic and regional markets is holding back development in the Middle East and North Africa. This column argues that the region and the international community must ensure that barriers to market entry and exit are eliminated, and that independent regulatory bodies at the national and regional levels help to promote domestic demand as the main engine for sustainable and inclusive growth.