Is Marriage for White People? Incarceration and the Racial Marriage Divide

By Elizabeth Caucutt, Nezih Guner and Christopher Rauh

http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:red:sed017:779&r=dge

The differences between black and white households and family structure have been a concern for policy makers for a long time. The last few decades, however, have witnessed an unprecedented retreat from marriage among black individuals. In 1970, about 89% of black women between ages 25 and 54 were ever married, in contrast to only 51% today. Wilson (1987) suggests that the lack of marriageable black men due to incarceration and unemployment is behind this decline. In this paper, we take a fresh look at the Wilson Hypothesis. We argue that the current incarceration policies and labor market prospects make black men much riskier spouses than white men. They are not only more likely to be, but also to become, unemployed or incarcerated than their white counterparts. We develop an equilibrium search model of marriage, divorce and labor supply that takes into account the transitions between employment, unemployment and prison for individuals by race, education, and gender. We calibrate this model to be consistent with key statistics for the US economy. We then investigate how much of the racial divide in marriage is due to differences in the riskiness of potential spouses, heterogeneity in the education distribution, and heterogeneity in wages. We find that differences in incarceration and employment dynamics between black and white men can account for about 76% of the existing black-white marriage gap in the data. We also study how “The War on Drugs” in the US might have affected the structure of black families, and find that it can account for between 13% to 41% of the racial marriage gap.

I chose to highlight this paper because it addresses an important question and it shows how the DSGE methodology allows to study scenarios that you cannot run in real life. This paper shows that if incarceration policies were different, there would be quite different outcomes on the labor and marriage markets, and many people would be living in a very different world.

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