Ever since John von Neumann's game theory promised to help us understand love and marriage, economists have been interested in how people choose their partners and how relationships work.
It takes two to tango, and it also takes two to get married. Marriage therefore requires you to go out and find someone you want to marry, and persuade them to marry you. It's a matching problem, and it is not unique to marriage. Getting a job is emotionally a different proposition to finding a wife or husband, but in some ways it's similar: you need to consider a range of jobs, work out which ones you prefer, and persuade the employer that he likes the match as much as you do. And just as in the job market, who matches up with whom, and on what terms, will depend on what the competition is offering.
Whom you marry depends on where you live, but also on how old you are and what race you are. Most people marry people of the same race, of a similar age and from the same area. 96 percent of married black women have black husbands, and over 96 percent of married white women have white husbands.
What might cause an imbalance in some of these local marriage markets? Imbalances in cities might be caused by unskilled young men rationally deciding to give up and move to the country, or stay there in the first place. But another major reason for men being absent from local marriage markets is prison. There are two million men in US prisons and just 100,000 women; and the men in prison are spread unevenly across age, race and geography. Huge numbers of young black men are in prison, and that is bound to pose a problem for the young black women they might otherwise have married. (It might also pose a problem for women of other races and in other states—but only if some women were inclined and able to hop from one marriage market to a better one. That does not seem to happen often enough to cancel out the effect of the shortage of marriageable young black men.)
In New Mexico, for example, 30 percent of young black men, aged 20-35, are in prison (or, less commonly, in a secure mental institution). That is an extreme case, but there are 32 states with more than one in ten young black men in prison, and ten states where one in six young black men are behind bars. That is a serious business for young black women.
According to economists Kerwin Kofi Charles and Ming Ching Luoh, where a large number of a particular racial group is in prison, women of the same age and race in that state do not enjoy the gains from marriage, or a stable relationship, that women in a more equitable situation do.
Go read the entire excerpt on Slate.