According to a new study by UCI economist David Neumark, an increasing rate of incarceration of minority men in the U.S. has contributed to both the increasing number of single-parent minority households and the decreasing number of minority high school dropouts.  The findings are surprising, says Neumark, as they contradict both liberal and conservative views as well as current public policy initiatives. 

The study, co-authored with Keith Finlay, Tulane University economics assistant professor and UCI economics Ph.D. alumnus, appears in the fall issue of the quarterly Journal of Human Resources.

"Previous research has found that children who grow up in an environment other than a married, two-person household are more likely to repeat a grade, be expelled or suspended, or receive treatment for an emotional problem,” says Neumark (pictured at right).  “Our research shows that policy efforts to create more married two-parent households won’t necessarily improve outcomes for children, and – depending on which spouses are available – may even worsen them.”

Using U.S. Census data and state by state institutionalization rates, the economists find evidence linking the decreasing high school dropout rate of minorities to the increasing incarceration rate of minority men aged 18-40 because of the latter’s effect on the marriage prospects for minority women.

“Incarceration rates affect the supply of potential husbands in what is still a largely same-race marriage market by decreasing the number and quality of available marriage partners,” says Neumark.  

From 1970-2000, the economists found that the incarceration rates of Blacks and Hispanics aged 18 to 40 increased  7.3 and 1.5 percentage points, respectively, while the rate of incarcerated Whites increased by 1 percentage point.  Correspondingly, the number of children living with never-married mothers increased 1 percentage point among Whites, 3.4 percentage points among Hispanics, and 18.5 percentage points among Blacks while the number of high school dropouts among all races was cut nearly in half. 

“The findings indicate that the increasing incarceration rate of minority men is directly linked to a decrease in the number of minority high school dropouts,” says Neumark.  “By removing potentially lower quality husbands and fathers from the marriage market via incarceration, it appears that their negative influence on children in the home is reduced.  So, although higher incarceration leaves in its wake a higher number of never-married mothers, their children actually end up doing better.”

The findings have important implications for current policies such as the 1996 welfare reforms and the Healthy Marriage Initiative included in the 2006 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families reauthorization.  Targeted at low-income, unmarried mothers, these policies have aimed to prevent out of wedlock childbearing and encourage formation of two-parent families, says Neumark. 

“Marriage promotion policies presume that marriage itself will directly improve outcomes, yet our findings show that encouraging marriage for poor, unmarried mothers may not improve outcomes for their children and could even worsen them depending on which marriages form as a result of such policies,” he says.  Instead, he advises policy makers to focus on factors aimed at increasing human capital of parents and improving the environments faced by poor families.

For a research abstract for this study, visit (subscription required for full viewing).

-Heather Wuebker, Social Sciences Communications
-photo by Steve Zylius/UC Irvine

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