Why the War on Drugs is Bad for Family Values:

Social conservatives have, with some justification, long warned of the dangers of single-parenthood among the poor, which often leads to poor outcomes for children. However, some of those same social conservatives are also staunch supporters of the War on Drugs. Unfortunately, as Kerry Howley points out in a recent LA Times debate with Kay Hymowitz, the War on Drugs is a major contributor to the prevalence of fatherless children in poor black communities:

[C]hildren tend to do better when they're raised by two biological parents, along a variety of dimensions and controlling for all sorts of factors. It was always a mistake to deny that fact in the service of some larger political crusade.

Still, I'm not sure where blindly repeating "two parents are ideal" gets us. I have yet to meet a single mother who doesn't want help. The low-income single women in "Promises I Can Keep," the study of poor mothers I referenced during our pregnancy pact discussion, hope upon hope for a worthy partner to come along....

For low-income black women, the world really isn't cooperating. We put an awful lot of nonviolent black men behind bars, which is not generally conducive to good fathering. With so many young men absent, the marriage markets are heavily skewed against women, and mothers who might otherwise demand that men stay home and change diapers find themselves in a miserable bargaining position. In his book "The Logic of Life," Tim Harford describes one study indicating that "a one-percentage- point increase in the proportion of young black men in prison reduces the proportion of young black women who have ever been married by three percentage points." Now consider: In New Mexico, 30% of black men between 30 and 35 are in prison. Telling women to want marriage more just doesn't seem like an effective strategy here. Nor does it seem right to suggest that they ought not to have children at all; these women are simply responding rationally to the world as it is.

As I have noted in the past (here and here), some 55% of US federal prison inmates and 21% of state inmates are non-violent drug offenders. And over 62% of incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders are black(most of them poor black males). I don't claim that this racial disparity in drug incarceration is caused solely - or even primarily - by racial prejudice. But even if undertaken for the best of motives, it drastically reduces the available pool of marriageable men in poor black communities. And, as Kerry notes, those men who remain have far less incentive to marry because their stronger bargaining position caused by scarcity makes it easier for them to obtain sex without making any longterm commitment to the women they do it with. Even after drug offenders are released from prison, they are likely to be worse marriage prospects than before, if only because it's hard to get a steady job after being in prison for several years.

Some conservatives might argue that the kinds of men who get arrested for drug possession or dealing wouldn't make good husbands even if they stay out of prison. Perhaps that is true in some cases. But these men still probably beat the alternative of single parenthood. Moreover, Kerry's point about bargaining position is crucial here. If fewer men from these communities were in prison, there would be more competition between them in the dating market and thus stronger incentives for them to behave in ways that appeal to women. To the extent that women prefer men who don't get high to those who do, that might well include staying off the drugs - as well as becoming better providers and fathers in other ways.

UPDATE: Some commenters question the implicit assumptions of Kerry's and my bargaining position point: that many men would like to gain access to sex without making a longterm commitment, while most women prefer men who are willing to make such commitments. All I can say is that both points are backed by extensive social science evidence - far too much to summarize here. Promises I Can Keep, the book cited by Kerry, is among the studies that shows that most low-income women prefer men who will be good longterm providers. John Marshall Townsend's book What Women Want, What Men Want, provides further extensive evidence on both male and female preferences on these points. And Tim Harford's book, also cited by Kerry, provides evidence showing that marriage rates do indeed decline in communities where more men are imprisoned, suggesting that men and women respond to incentives in the way the post posits.

The point is not that men are less "moral" than women. Rather, the two sexes are responding to different incentives. Men can gain a reproductive advantage from casual sex without commitment because one man can impregnate a large number of women. Women, for obvious reasons, can't do this (because the number of pregnancies they can have is relatively fixed, regardless of how much casual sex they have). Therefore, men, on average, have a stronger interest in casual sex without commitment than women do. At the same time, they are willing to restrain such behavior and make longterm commitments if women are in a strong enough bargaining position to insist that they do so. None of these points apply to all men and all women all the time. But they do identify important general tendencies.