Skip to main content

Is Drug War Undermining Traditional Marriage?

By Katherine Mangu-Ward

New research finds that insanely high incarceration rates in the United States have contributed to declining marriage rates.

Charles Kerwin Kofi and Ming Ching Luoh write in The Review of Economics and Statistics that "higher male imprisonment appears to have lowered the likelihood that women marry, modestly reduced the quality of their spouses when they do marry, and shifted the gains from marriage away from women and toward men."

In other words, the drug war is undermining traditional marriage. Hear that social conservatives?

The paper attributes about 13 percent of the decline in marriage rates overall since 1990 to the fact that an awful lot of dudes are in jail.

Incarceration rates vary by socioeconomic class and also by race; in 2004, one in eight black males age 25-29 was incarcerated compared to one in 28 Hispanic males and one in 59 white males. If women search for future husband in their own community—where community is defined over geographic, economic or racial qualities—then some women are more disadvantaged than others. The evidence suggests that this is true. For example, black women are the most disadvantaged—about 18% percent of the decline in marriage rates among black women can be explained by incarceration. Hispanic women are also relatively disadvantaged, with about 10% of the reduction in marriage rates in that group explained by incarceration.

This effect is biggest for women with little education; particularly women with less than a high school education, but also for women with high school and some college. The only group of women unaffected by the trend is women who have a university degree, but it isn’t that surprising that these women do not draw their partners from the same pool of men who have been affected by the increase in incarceration rates.

Social conservatives, please stop reading here, and take a little time to rethink your position on the war on drugs.

Everyone else, there are a couple of additional stats that seem to be related to high incarceration rates in certain groups: Employment for women is up dramatically, and divorce rates are down. These figures likely reflect the limited choices facing women in populations depleted of men.


Popular Video