Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Incarceration and the Formation and Stability of Marital Unions

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Incarceration and the Formation and Stability of Marital Unions

Article excerpt

Rising imprisonment rates and declining marriage rates among low-education African Americans motivate an analysis of the effects of incarceration on marriage. An event history analysis of 2,041 unmarried men from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth suggests that men are unlikely to marry in the years they serve in prison. A separate analysis of 2,762 married men shows that incarceration during marriage significantly increases the risk of divorce or separation. We simulate aggregate marriage rates using estimates from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and find that the prevalence of marriage would change little if incarceration rates were reduced.

Key Words: incarceration, marital dissolution, marriage.

A striking feature of the decline in U.S. marriage rates over the last 40 years is the low level of marriage among African Americans with little schooling. Marriage rates among loweducation Black women shrunk by 50% in the 30 years after 1965. By 2000, fewer than 30% of Black women in the bottom third of the education distribution were married compared to more than 60% of their White counterparts (Ellwood & Jencks, 2004). Wilson and Neckerman (1986) famously linked low marriage rates among poor urban African Americans to the shortage of "marriageable men." In this thesis, low male employment rates and high rates of imprisonment depleted the supply of suitable marriage partners for Black women in poor urban neighborhoods. Although many studies subsequently examined the effect of men's labor market status on marriage rates (e.g., Blau, Kahn, & Waldfogel, 2000; Lichter, LeClere, & McLaughlin, 1991; McLanahan & Casper, 1995), few examined the effects of incarceration.

In their original analysis, Wilson and Neckerman (1986) suggested that incarceration reduced marriage rates by removing men from poor, urban neighborhoods and from the pool of possible marriage partners. The effects of incarceration on marriage may be even larger than Wilson and Neckerman hypothesized because ex-offenders may remain undesirable marriage partners compared to men who have never served time. Convicted husbands may also be at high risk of divorce because of their time behind bars. From this perspective, the aggregate effect of incarceration on marriage markets is potentially large. The effect extends beyond unmarried inmates to include those who are married and the large pool of ex-inmates whose numbers far exceed the number in prison or jail.

The significance of imprisonment for marriage among minority and low-education couples has acquired new importance with the dramatic growth in the incarceration rate. The fraction of the adult population in state or federal prison grew fivefold between 1970 and 2000 (Maguire & Pastore, 2003). By 2002, more than 2 million inmates-more than 90% of them men-were locked up in prison or jail. Most of the growth in incarceration rates was concentrated among loweducation and African American men. About 30% of noncollege Black men born in the late 1960s spent time in state or federal prison by their mid-30s (Pettit & Western, 2004). Under these conditions, incarceration may have significantly lowered marriage rates among those whose risk of imprisonment was especially high: young African American men and men with little schooling.

The link between incarceration and marriage has broad demographic and criminological significance. Demographers have observed that declining marriage rates among disadvantaged couples increase the likelihood of nonmarital childbearing and the concomitant risk of poverty for unmarried mothers and their children (Ellwood & Jencks, 2004, review the literature). In this context, the prison boom may be fueling nonmarital birth rates and economic disadvantage among minority, low-education women. In addition, strong stable marriages have been found to provide a pathway out of crime for men with histories of delinquency and adult offending (Laub, Nagin, & Sampson, 1998; Uggen & Wakefield, 2005; Warr, 1998). …

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