What is driving the racial marriage gap in the United States?

Bride and groom stroll down the beach at the shores of the sea

In 2018, 62% of white women between ages 25 and 54 were married in the U.S., compared to only 32% of black women, a gap of 30 percentage points. The racial marriage gap has important implications for inequality and the well-being of children. What is driving this gap?

In the BSE Working Paper 1300, “Incarceration, Unemployment, and the Racial Marriage Divide,” Elizabeth M. Caucutt, Nezih Guner, and Christopher Rauh address this question by developing a model in which people meet and decide whether to get married, and once they are married they might decide to get divorced. The model is estimated using data. Their work aims to quantify how much of the marriage gap is driven by labor market conditions and incarceration rates versus how much of it is a consequence of differences in preferences for marriage and divorce.

The Wilson Hypothesis vs. Different Tastes

The most common explanation for the racial-marriage gap is the so-called Wilson Hypothesis. It suggests that the formation of black families is affected by the fact that there are more black women than men, and that black men suffer from higher rates of unemployment and incarceration. In 2006, among 25 to 54 years olds, there were only 0.87 black men per black woman. Black men between ages 25 and 54 are less likely to be employed than white men, 60% vs. 85%, and more likely to be unemployed, 7.3% vs. 3.6%. Differences in incarceration rates are even more significant. For black men born between 1965 and 1969, the risk of imprisonment over the course of their life before age 34 was 20.5%, compared to just 2.9% for white men. 

On the other hand, it could be that the gap is a consequence of preferences. Maybe white women have a stronger taste for marriage than black women, which could, for instance, be a consequence of social norms. 

The Model and the Data

The first step in their estimation is to document a set of facts in the data that serve as economic differences between blacks and whites in the model. These include educational attainment wages, hours worked, and the number of children, calculated from the American Community Survey, and childcare costs, calculated from the Survey of Income and Program Participation. Furthermore, transitions between employment, unemployment, and incarceration for men are calculated using data from the Current Population Survey, the 2004 Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979.

The model parameters are then estimated to be made decisions in the model replicate economic outcomes we see in the data. In particular, the people in the model decide to marry or stay single, to work or not, and are in prison at rates observed in the real world. We know that people are more likely to marry someone with a similar level of education which also occurs in the model. Marriages also tend to also have the same average durations as in the data. With a model that captures several aspects of the U.S. economy, the authors then use it as a laboratory to understand the racial marriage gap through simulations. 

Understanding the Racial-Marriage Gap

To analyze the roles of economic conditions and preferences in driving the racial-marriage gap, the authors simulate decisions when existing differences between the white and black populations are eliminated. For example, the authors give black men white men´s probability of going to prison and look at what happens to the racial-marriage gap. The different experiments include: 

  • Set the sex ratio equal to one for the black population. This implies that black women are more likely to meet a black man. The share of married black women increases from 37% to 42%, closing nearly one-fifth of the marriage gap.
  • Have black men find and lose jobs at the same rates as white men. Under this scenario, 12% of the racial-marriage gap for women is closed.
  • Give black men the same probability of going to prison as white men. This exercise makes the lives of black men and therefore their potential partners less risky, increasing the fraction of married black women from 37% to 48%, and closing 40% of the gap.
  • Combine all the elements of the Wilson Hypothesis. This experiment means that black men go to prison, and find and lose jobs at the same rate as white men, and there exists an equal amount of black men as women. The racial-marriage gap is reduced by 78%.
  • Finally, the authors consider the role of different preferences by giving black women the taste for marriage and the cost of divorce of white women. The results show that this accounts for just under 3% of the racial-marriage gap.

The conclusion is clear; most of the racial-marriage gap arises from differences in economic and existential circumstances, i.e., the Wilson Hypothesis is indeed a critical determinant of the racial marriage gap, instead of differences in preferences. This suggests policies that improve employment opportunities or reduce incarceration of black men could shrink the racial-marriage gap.