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Faculty of Economics

Are higher rates of incarceration and unemployment responsible for lower marriage rates among the black population in the US? A University of Cambridge academic has highlighted the difference in the marriage rates between black and white people in the United States.


Dr Christopher Rauh

“The difference in marriage rates between black and white Americans is striking,” says Dr Christopher Rauh. “The bleak labour market prospects of black men and the considerable risk of being incarcerated go a long way in explaining why so many black women are unmarried.”

Dr Rauh, a University Lecturer at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge, has investigated the racial-marriage gap in the United States, along with co-authors Elizabeth Caucutt (University of Western Ontario) and Nezih Guner (CEMFI).

He set out to test the so-called Wilson Hypothesis, which suggests the higher rates of incarceration among black people, are responsible for lower marriage rates, along with unemployment.

“The racial-marriage gap in the United States is large,” says Dr Rauh. “From our research it is clear a majority of the racial-marriage gap arises from differences in economic circumstance, as opposed to differences in preference.”

The US enthusiasm for inordinately long prison sentences is in itself worthy of note, and the societal impacts are highlighted by Dr Rauh. The number of people behind bars has increased so that the US now holds 25% of the world's prison population, while only accounting for about 5% of the world's population.

Couple Holding Hands Image

“Both the decline of jobs in the manufacturing sector as well as the era of mass incarceration have disproportionately acted on black communities, and in particular black men,” he says.

This suggests policies that improve employment opportunities, as well as reducing incarceration of black men could shrink the racial-marriage gap. “Alas, the impact of more generous welfare programs on the racial-marriage gap is very small,” he comments.

The full paper by Elizabeth M. Caucutt, Nezih Guner, Christopher Rauh “Is Marriage for White People? Incarceration, Unemployment, and the Racial Marriage Divide” is available at: