Wanna Support Marriage? End The Drug War. Fight Unemployment.

[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:

Source: Philip Cohen's analysis of data from the American Community Survey, 2005-2007

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.

This entry posted in crossposted on TADA, Economics and the like, Families structures, divorce, etc, Prisons and Justice and Police. Bookmark the permalink. 

30 Responses to Wanna Support Marriage? End The Drug War. Fight Unemployment.

  1. 1
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Am I the only one who thinks its odd to measure # of employed unmarried men available to # of women? I note the distinct absence of the employment criteria for women. Is that simply a labeling error in the graph? If not, it seems more than a bit problematic. We shouldn’t be expecting more men than women to accept an unemployed partner.

  2. 2
    Elliott Mason says:

    gin-and-whiskey: Yes, but that would be a matter for the Men’s Marriage Market chart — this is the Women’s Marriage Market (aka what is available for hetero women to marry, in their area, in terms of Reasonably Attractive Mates).

  3. 3
    Kevin Moore says:

    Is that a new cartoon? Or an old one recycled that I’ve never seen before? Either way, it is awesome.

  4. 4
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    what is available for hetero women to marry, in their area, in terms of Reasonably Attractive Mates

    Defining that is a problem.

    I have no problem with employment status being a factor in marriage choice. It would be for me as well.

    But this is being framed as a social crisis for poor women, which is not of their making. So it’s important to recognize that some (unknown) part of that presentation relies on the assumption that an “appropriate” mate is one who is employed, irrespective of the employment status of the one looking.

    From my perspective, talking about the crisis and trying to solve it on that basis is antifeminist. It’s antifeminist because it reinforces the traditional social dynamic of men as sole wage earners, by focusing on male employment and framing the woman’s work status as irrelevant.

    Again: there’s nothing wrong with considering employment status. But you need to include the data to demonstrate that the crisis stems from social numbers and not from personal choices.

    All they need to do is to provide more detail. How easy is it for employed women to find a same-status partner? How easy is it for unemployed women to find a same-status partner? You can still include chart above.

    But presenting “the issue” as “it’s a crisis unless women can find an employed partner, irrespective of their own employment status” is antifeminist.

  5. 5
    Emily says:

    Gin: except that for an unemployed person, it’s even more important to find an EMPLOYED partner, whether male or female. Two unemployed people do not make for a particularly stable marriage, or rather, for a marriage that enhances the stability of the new “family.”

    I have seen many relationships in which formerly court-involved men are the primary caretakers for children while their female partners work outside the home. But I would guess that this is still a socially stigmatized arrangement, one that might not seem to an individual to be “worthy” of marriage.

    So you can address that by improving opportunities for men to work, and/or you can improve it by increasing the respect and value attributed to men’s caretaking as a factor in their “marriage worthiness” – a factor that is perhaps already more frequently taken into account for women (unemployed but will make a “good mother” might = higher marriage worthiness). This calculus is also affected by the fact that women still lag behind men in how much they earn in outside employment. When women are compensated less for the same work, it makes the woman as wage earner/man as caretaker diad less appealing than the opposite.

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    Particularly for someone who is already low-income and supporting a child, it’s very chancy to marry someone who doesn’t have a job or good employment prospects. Women interviewed in “Promises I Can Keep” talked specifically about that; they don’t want to be in a position where they have less ability to feed/support their child because they have to be feeding/supporting a spouse as well.

  7. 7
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    I agree that income is practically relevant. It’s better/easier to marry someone who has income, than it is to marry someone who doesn’t have income.

    But there are ways to acknowledge that, and to present data related to income, which DON’T assume a standard patriarchal model. This study fails in that respect. It ignores a very important factor, so that the data will “pop” more. And as a result of that failure, it provides only minimal support for your argument.

    Yes, women want to marry men with jobs. No surprise there. But there aren’t enough men with jobs. that’s not surprising either.

    But what’s the problem to be solved?

    Is it that the men don’t have jobs, or make enough money? Is it that the women don’t have jobs, or make enough money? Is it that there aren’t enough men around in general, because they’re in jail? Is it that the women have unrealistic expectations for their partners; should men, but not women, be expected to marry without caring about spousal income? Etc.

    After all, you’re talking about the War on Drugs here, and its negative effect on the population. But you’re also counting only employed men as eligible. Does the WOD selectively catch people who are employed? I ask because the incarceration status of someone who ISN’T employed has absolutely zero effect on the statistic above. So it’s more than a little off to use that statistic to suggest we should adjust the WOD.

  8. 8
    Mythago says:

    Right. I’m all about getting rid of the meme that primary caretaker is not a fit role for men, but we’re not talking about households with the financial luxury to have one person out of the workforce – and particularly permanently out of the workforce.

    Let’s also not forget that the stereotype of “women’s work” cuts both ways. Before scolding a woman for not thinking harder about a househusband, consider to what degree her spouse is really going to assume those burdens.

  9. 9
    Ampersand says:

    Kevin, it’s a years-old cartoon. I was reminded of it because I searched google images for “war on drugs.” :-p

  10. 10
    Ampersand says:

    After all, you’re talking about the War on Drugs here, and its negative effect on the population.

    Actually, I was talking about unemployment and the War on Drugs.

  11. 11
    Phil says:

    Gin: except that for an unemployed person, it’s even more important to find an EMPLOYED partner, whether male or female.

    Yes, but some of the women in the “100 women” would obviously have jobs, and we don’t know what percentage that is.

    I think gin-and-whiskey makes a good point. Not only does the graph appear to be based on patriarchal assumptions, but these assumptions may obscure the actual data.

    For example, imagine that a city has a group of 100 women, 60% of whom are employed. Imagine that this city also has a group of 100 men, 90% of whom are employed. Even though there are exactly as many men as women, and even though twice as many men are employed as women, this graph would present that data as a net negative for women. Perhaps there are reasons to assume that is true. But isn’t it reasonable to think that the ratio of employed men to women is relevant, too? Unemployed men could go on to get jobs, whereas men who are, say, dead–cannot. So if the shortage of unemployed men were caused by an actual shortage of men, then improving the job market still couldn’t fix the problem. By comparing apples to oranges, this graph (potentially) obscures the nature of the situation.

  12. 12
    Phil says:

    “even though twice as many men are employed as women”

    This should have read that “fifty percent more man are employed than women.”

  13. 13
    hf says:

    Does the WOD selectively catch people who are employed

    People with jobs have more money for drugs, so this wouldn’t surprise me all that much.

    Note that if it catches any men with jobs at all it could technically affect the given stats, more so if it doesn’t discriminate strongly by employment status.

  14. 14
    Austin Nedved says:

    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.

    Yes they are.

    Btw, do you know of any countries that actually have legalized drugs, or at least decriminalized their use? If so, what has the outcome been?

  15. 15
    Jebedee says:

    Austin Nedved: Portugal (decriminalisation for personal use). The linked article quotes some brief stats which seem correlated to the policy (I imagine establishing actual causation is rather tricky), Googling gives some longer articles which have more.

  16. 16
    ballgame says:

    I appreciate the points that gin-and-whiskey has been making here. I can only imagine the (justified) outrage that would ensue if someone ran a chart entitled, “Number of Unmarried Women with BMI <25, Per 100 Unmarried Men."

    That said, I absolutely agree with the notion of ending the spectacular disaster we refer to as The War on Drugs, and having a sane economics policy that would revitalize our cities.

  17. 17
    Stefan says:

    It shouldn’t be the war on drugs, it should be the war on heroin, meth and cocaine.

  18. 18
    Jake Squid says:

    Turns out that it’s actually been the war to promote heroine use. It seems to me that it’s done this by astronomically raising the price of pot while drastically lowering the price on cocaine & heroine.

  19. 19
    Myca says:

    the war to promote heroine use

    Would that be Boudicea’s rebellion against the Romans or St. Joan’s fight against the English?

    Or maybe Buffy & the potentials vs The First?

    —Myca

  20. 20
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    In the end, I look at these two things:
    1) the graph in which the very existence of unemployed men is entirely irrelevant, while the same is not true for women; and
    2) the quote “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.”

    And I frankly have a lot of trouble concluding that these are the type of reports or commentary which are really worth a damn.

    That is even though I can see the underlying viewpoint. Obviously it’s bad to have black men in jail; obviously it’s bad for lots of folks to be unemployed. And it’s bad for any person–including the male partner–to have too much control over any marriage or what happens in the household. And since the jail/unemployment issues are not equal by sex or by race, it’s unsurprising that the collateral effects are also unequal by both sex and race.

    But, still the choice of presentation is more than a bit galling, in the “are you serious?” kind of way. No matter how reasonable the concept or the data, authors like these only serve to undermine it. Frankly it would have been a better post without the cites. Aren’t there any other ones that you would like to support your argument?

  21. 21
    Jake Squid says:

    Well, since I wrote, “use,” I’m going to go with St. Joan.

  22. 22
    Ampersand says:

    I actually agree with a lot of the critiques of the graph.

    …while drastically lowering the price on cocaine & heroine.

    That’s interesting. I didn’t know about this. Can you expand on it a bit, or provide a link?

  23. 23
    Jake Squid says:

    When I was in my teens, you could get a 1/2 ounce of weed for $40. Coke was $100/gram. The prices now are more like, $125 for a 1/2 ounce. Last time I asked someone about it, coke was $40/gram. Although looking online, it seems to be back in the $100 range. So, no change in coke price in 25 or 30 years – not even inflation adjusted increases – while there’s a 325% increase in marijuana price.

    There’s also this from a NY Times blog.

  24. 24
    shalom says:

    The prices now are more like, $125 for a 1/2 ounce.

    My observation puts it at $100 for a 1/4, and the conventional wisdom is that costs in my area are lower than the rest of the country due to a relatively high rate of local growers.

    That said, I have heard many more experienced than me remark that bad weed (which even today can go for as little as $10 or $20 for a 1/4, I’m told) is disappearing from the market. What portion of the price increase is the result of an increase in average quality?

  25. 25
    Jake Squid says:

    What portion of the price increase is the result of an increase in average quality?

    I dunno. Quality of the stuff always goes up. It’s a human farming specialty. Weed in the 80′s was waaaay stronger than weed in the 60′s, I’m told. Weed today is certainly waaaaaay stronger than weed in the 80′s. Did the cost of pot increase greatly from the 60′s to the 80′s while coke stayed the same during the same period?

  26. 26
    mythago says:

    Is it really stronger, or is that more Boomer hype? “Oh sure, we smoked pot in college, but that was OK because it was GOOD pot. So really the only reason I don’t want my kids smoking pot is that it’s BAD pot. Honest!”

  27. 27
    Jake Squid says:

    Definitely stronger now than in the ’80s. Wouldn’t it be Gen-X hype? Boomers were my parents generation. Or thereabouts.

  28. 28
    Mythago says:

    You don’t think any Boomers have minor children?

  29. 29
    Jake Squid says:

    Sure I do. But aren’t Gen-Xers becoming the majority of those?

  30. 30
    Grace Annam says:

    Myca:

    Would that be Boudicea’s rebellion against the Romans or St. Joan’s fight against the English?

    *snort* About once a month I catch this mistake while reviewing cases my officers have turned it. Yes, police officers. Sometimes I weep.

    Jake Squid:

    When I was in my teens, you could get a 1/2 ounce of weed for $40. Coke was $100/gram. The prices now are more like, $125 for a 1/2 ounce. Last time I asked someone about it, coke was $40/gram. Although looking online, it seems to be back in the $100 range. So, no change in coke price in 25 or 30 years – not even inflation adjusted increases – while there’s a 325% increase in marijuana price.

    Hereabouts (New England), marijuana is apparently going for about $10 for an eighth, which matches the price in your youth. This kind of thing varies wildly from place-to-place, though.

    I don’t know what the current local price on cocaine is.

    mythago:

    Is it really stronger, or is that more Boomer hype? “Oh sure, we smoked pot in college, but that was OK because it was GOOD pot. So really the only reason I don’t want my kids smoking pot is that it’s BAD pot. Honest!”

    It’s stronger. There has been all kinds of selective breeding going on in the last fifty years. The THC content is way up, and breeders also have varieties which look different: some don’t have five points on the leaves, some don’t have the serrated edges. Marijuana has changed.

    So, price-per-amount-of-high is probably actually down, since those halcyon days when Jake was a teen.

    Grace