The Economic Toll of Incarceration

The Upshot just posted a sobering illustration of 1.5 million “missing” adult black males across America. Census figures show that for every 100 black women not in jail, there are only 83 black men — due in large part to high rates of incarceration and early deaths.

University of Chicago economists have explored the steep social and economic toll arising from the absence of black men.

Kerwin Charles of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Health has shown that in regions where incarceration rates are high, marriage rates for black women are lower.

In particular, higher male imprisonment appears to have lowered the likelihood that women marry, modestly reduced the quality of their spouses when they do marry, and shifted the gains from marriage away from women and toward men.
Whether measured in totals or as a fraction of the population, more Americans are incarcerated than in all but a few other countries in the world.…High levels of incarceration lower the number of men freely interacting in society. Rising incarceration rates may thus lower women’s marriage probabilities simply because there are fewer potential husbands to go around.

To test this, Charles and coauthor Ming-Ching Luoh exploited the fact that couples typically match up in “marriage markets” that are sharply defined by race, age, and geographic region. Incarceration rates also vary tremendously on those dimensions, so researchers could use those differences to isolate how much incarceration of men ages 20 to 35 was contributing to marriage patterns.

They found[1] that a 1 percentage point increase in the male incarceration rate is associated with a a 2.4 percentage point reduction in the fraction of women who ever married.

The standard economic theory of marriage markets pioneered by Gary S. Becker in the 1970s predicts that when women outnumber men, women will marry men they might have otherwise rejected, if they marry at all, and men will benefit more from the marriage.

These effects tend to lower women’s economic well-being. Charles and Luoh find evidence that women take steps to support themselves; in states where incarceration rates are highest, African American women work more and are more likely to pursue advance schooling, but are still more likely to live in poverty.

Locked Out in Labor Markets

Meanwhile, harsh correction policies that left a growing share of the black male population behind bars may be a factor that is stalling or even reversing the overall economic progress African Americans have made since the 1970s.

UChicago economists Derek Neal and Armin Rick found that gains in education, employment and earnings for blacks since the Civil Rights movement have almost entirely eroded. “Our results below suggest that, relative to whites, labor market outcomes among black men are no better now and possibly worse than they were in 1970,” they write in a current working paper.[2]

The growth of incarceration rates among black men in recent decades, combined with the sharp drop in black employment rates during the Great Recession, have left most black men in a position relative to white men that is really no better than the position they occupied only a few years after the Civil Rights Act of 1965. A move toward more punitive treatment of arrested offenders drove prison growth in recent decades, and this trend is evident among arrested offenders in every major crime category.

Neal and Rick show that a trend toward harsher corrections policies resulted in a prison boom, with prison populations increasing…

even as overall violent crime declined.

Because blacks historically have been arrested at higher rates than whites, longer mandatory sentences and less flexibility for parole disproportionately affected black males.

Their evidence suggests that

prison spells harm the future labor market prospects of arrested offenders, and black men likely now face worse labor market prospects relative to white men than they faced when policy shifts in the late 1970s and early 1980s ignited the prison boom. More research is needed to determine whether or not the changes in corrections policy that drove prison growth have significantly harmed the employment and earnings prospects of less skilled men, and less-skilled black men in particular. In addition, economists need to carefully investigate the intergenerational consequences for families and communities of policy changes that promote mass incarceration.

— Toni L. Shears

[1] Kerwin Kofi Charles and Ming Ching Luoh. (2010) “Male Incarceration, the Marriage Market, and Female Outcomes.” The Review of Economics and Statistics. Posted online July 9, 2010

[2] Derek Neal and Armin Rick. “The Prison Boom & The Lack of Black Progress after Smith & Welch”- June 27, 2014 version