[Crossposted on Family Scholars Blog.]
As an unintended consequence of participating in so many arguments about marriage equality, I’ve read a lot of work by so-called marriage advocates. Although on the subject of same-sex marriage I haven’t found their arguments persuasive (to put it mildly), on other subjects I’ve found myself partly persuaded.
I’m not persuaded that either sex or shacking up without marriage is morally wrong, mind you. I don’t think that marriage is an effective antidote for poverty. I think the harms of non-marriage (including the harms to children raised outside of marriage), while real, have been often overstated and exaggerated by marriage advocates. Nor has my conviction wavered that pressure on the happily unmarried to marry, or on the unhappily unmarried to marry the wrong person, is horribly unfair.
But I am persuaded that marriage is extremely beneficial to many married people and their children, and thus beneficial to society. I’ve also become aware, through reading Kathryn Edin and others, that many unmarried Americans — often poor Americans, often people of color, often single parents — see a happy marriage as a major life goal.
So when marriage advocates say they want the government to help single people who want secure marriages get married, I’m with them, in principle. That seems like a pretty reasonable policy goal.
Where they tend to lose me is in the details of their proposals.
One common idea is that if we only hector and shame people enough — in particular, low-income young women — then we’ll see a lot more marriage happening. I don’t like this idea, for a few reasons.
One, it’s not very kind.
Two, as Kathryn Edin’s research has shown, the problem isn’t that low-income young women don’t want to get married. Many low-income young women desperately want a solid, loving marriage. And they’re also desperate to avoid divorce — which means they don’t want to marry the wrong man. Hectoring these women to want to get married misses the mark.
For low-income, heterosexual urban women, and especially for African-American women in that group, there’s a severe shortage of men. Demographer Philip Cohen gathered data from a few cities, comparing marriage markets for Black and white women:
So why are there so few marriageable Black men in these communities? One reason is the “War on Drugs.”
Academics Kerwin Kofi Charles and Ming Ching Luoh, in a study published in The Review of Economics and Statistics, found that the vast increase in drug-related incarceration starting in the 80s and 90s had a significant effect on marriage rates. “Higher levels of male incarceration lower female marriage and increase the tendency for women to marry men of inferior quality when they do marry, precisely as implied by the standard marriage market model. […] The results are remarkably stable across a variety of specifications. ”
Commenting on this research, Marina Adshade wrote:
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.
It’s not all bad news for women though; education and employment for women is increasing with incarceration rates, no doubt the effect of women having to become more independent.
One interesting finding is that divorce rates are also falling because of increased incarceration. The authors seem to think that women are being pickier and are therefore ending up in more stable relationships. I disagree. The logical explanation is that women have fewer outside options and so are more likely to stay in a marriage even when they are not happy. The much bigger problem with women having fewer outside options is that this implies that the men who stay out of prison are getting more say in what happens in the household.
That’s one concrete step we could take, to make marriage more available to those who want it: We could end the war on drugs. We could follow the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s recommendations, decriminalizing drugs and instead offering “health and treatment services to those who need them.”
Another huge barrier to marriage is unemployment. Unemployment is at crisis levels across the nation, but it’s even worse for black men — almost twice as high for black men as for the rest of the nation. This is a level of unemployment comparable to the Great Depression.
We could end the war on drugs — but that’s politically difficult to do. It’s not a coincidence that all but one of the members of the aforementioned The Global Commission on Drug Policy are former high government officials; what we need is more pressure on non-yet-retired government officials to follow suit.
We could do a lot more to lower unemployment — but, again, the political barriers are very high.
But as long as the War on Drugs and skyrocketing unemployment are left in place, marriage rates among poor women — and especially in urban Black communities, who have been hit hardest by both incarceration and unemployment — will remain low. Ending the war on drugs and fighting unemployment are the real pro-marriage policies.