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

JIWP Number: 2105

Caucutt, E. M., Guner, N. and Rauh, C.


The difference in marriage rates between black and white Americans is striking. Wilson (1987) suggests that a skewed sex ratio and higher rates of incarceration and unemployment are responsible for lower marriage rates among the black population. In this paper, we take a dynamic look at the Wilson Hypothesis. Incarceration rates and labor market prospects of black men make them riskier spouses than white men. We develop an equilibrium search model of marriage, divorce, and labor supply in which transitions between employment, unemployment, and prison differ by race, education, and gender. The model also allows for racial differences in how individuals value marriage and divorce. We estimate the model and investigate how much of the racial divide in marriage is due to the Wilson Hypothesis and how much is due to differences in preferences for marriage. We find that the Wilson Hypothesis accounts for more than three quarters of the model's racial-marriage gap. This suggests policies that improve employment opportunities and/or reduce incarceration for black men could shrink the racial-marriage gap.

Classification JEL