The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Black-White Marriage Gap—Dollars and Doubts

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Though marriage rates have been declining for all ethnic groups in America in recent decades, social scientists marvel at the particularly precipitous decline among African Americans, a decline opening an unprecedented marriage gap separating blacks from whites. Accounting for this social chasm is the challenge that a team of social scientists from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California, Los Angeles, recently took on in a study published in The Future of Children. Though their analysis is not conclusive, it does expose the socially corrosive effects of recent changes in the nation’s economy and its culture.

Acknowledging that the racial difference in marriage rates is now “striking,” the authors of the new analysis stress the relative novelty of this difference. “Racial differences in marriage remained modest as recently as 1970,” they remark, noting that in that year “94.8 percent of white women and 92.2 percent of black women had ever been married.” By contrast, data for 2010 indicate that, compared to white women, “a far lower proportion of black women have married at least once by age 40.” These data show that while nearly nine out of ten white women (and more than eight out of ten Hispanic women) have been or still are married by their early 40s, “fewer than two-thirds of black women reported having married at least once by the same age.”

Not only do the analysts see post-1970 marriage rates among African Americans dropping to levels much lower than those found among whites, but they also see “marital instability continu[ing] to diverge between black and white women,” so that divorce rates among African Americans now run markedly higher than among whites. “About 60 percent of white women who have ever married are still married in their early 40s,” the analysts point out, “compared to 55 percent of Hispanic women but only 45 percent of black women.”  

This plunge in marriage rates and the simultaneous rise in divorce rates have no doubt impaired the quality of life for African Americans considered simply as adult individuals. But the authors of the study worry about what it means for African American adults as parents—and for African American children. Looking at Census data for 2014, the analysts find that while “70 percent of non-Hispanic white children (ages 0–18) and roughly 59 percent of Hispanic children were living with both of their biological parents” in that year, two-biological-parent households accounted for “only a little more than one-third of black children.” Willing to concede that “many children raised in single-parent households thrive and prosper,” the researchers can hardly ignore studies demonstrating that, in the aggregate, “single-parent families are associated with poorer outcomes for children, such as low educational attainment and teen childbearing,” perhaps—they suggest—because the splitting up of parents has the effect of “reducing fathers’ and mothers’ ability to invest in their children.” The Texas and UCLA scholars thus reason that “even if many single-parent families function well and produce healthy children, population-level differences in family stability are associated with distress for both parents and children.”

But why have marriage rates dropped so sharply among African Americans, so putting them at risk for such distress?

The analysts adduce evidence implicating changes in the economy. Pointing to “an enormous decline in unskilled manufacturing jobs during the 1970s and 1980s,” they emphasize that this decline “hit black men particularly hard,” so widening the “black-white unemployment gap.” Indeed, “by 1985 unemployment rates for black men aged 25–54 were two times higher than for white men in the same age range, ” and “among men aged 16–24 the racial disparity was even greater, with the unemployment rate for black men three times that of white men.”

Further depressing the number of marriageable black men was the sharp spike in the late twentieth century in incarceration rates for black males: “in the early 2000s, more than one-third of young black men who hadn’t attended college were incarcerated, and nearly twice as many black men under age 40 had a prison record than a bachelor’s degree. Overall, black men are seven times more likely than white men to be incarcerated.”

Still, the researchers must admit that trends in “men’s demographic availability, unemployment, and low earnings don’t completely explain black-white differences in marriage.” After all, they observe, “black marriage rates fell at the same time that racial discrimination was declining and black men’s wages were growing.” Between 1960 and 1980, as African-American marriage rates were falling, “the proportion of blacks who were in the middle class (defined as between 200 and 499 percent of the federal poverty line) increased substantially.” What is more, “black marriage rates . . . continued falling after 1980 even as black men’s unemployment rates and real wages improved.” 

And why, the analysts must ask, if adverse economic trends are the prime reason for the slide in African-American marriage rates, is it that “the proportion of blacks who are poor is lower today than in 1960, and blacks’ median household income, after adjusting for inflation, is higher”? 

Overall, then, the researchers must admit that even if “differences in employment, earnings, and wealth might account for a sizeable portion of the contemporary racial gap in marriage,” even if deleterious patterns in “school quality and young men’s risk of incarceration . . . combine with economic disadvantage to depress black marriage rates,” they still cannot explain why the rate for “black marriage began to fall in the middle of the 20th century and why it continued to do so through good economic times and bad.”  

Compounding the analysts’ befuddlement on this point is the “puzzle” that inheres in the fact “that Hispanic marriage patterns more closely resemble those of whites than those of blacks, despite the fact that Hispanic and black Americans face similar levels of economic disadvantage.” But as they reflect on the multi-generational marriage patterns among Hispanics, however, the Texas scholars do tease out a few clues as to what has happened among African Americans. These scholars cite work by colleagues inclined to believe that marriage rates run surprisingly high among Hispanics because so many of them are “first or second generation immigrants who come from collectivist countries where the imperative to marry remains strong.”  

The Texas and UCLA analysts assert, however, that “even if the attitudes that immigrants bring from other countries buoy Hispanic marriage rates, over time and across generations Hispanic women in the United States experience lower levels of marriage and higher rates of unmarried childbearing.” Elaborating on this point, they point out that among immigrant Hispanic populations, “in the third generation and beyond, Hispanic women’s family patterns increasingly resemble those of black Americans. Exposure to economic disadvantage in the United States, then, combined with the widespread individualistic ethos here, eventually trumps whatever pro-marriage disposition Hispanics might have had.”

Here, among third- and fourth-generation Hispanic immigrants, the Texas scholars appear to have gained some real insight into what has happened to marriage among the African Americans that these Hispanics increasingly resemble in their own marriage behavior. It would appear quite likely that wedlock is imperiled among African Americans largely because of the marriage-inhibiting combination of economic poverty and radical individualism (simply another name for cultural poverty).

Even as the Texas and UCLA scholars insist that “no single explanation can account for all the racial gaps we see in marriage,” they do offer “useful (albeit partial) explanations” when they sketch out a narrative underscoring the power of hyper-individualistic culture to trump economics: “When the imperative to marry was high,” they remark, “as it was through the mid-20th century in the United States, the vast majority of women married despite high levels of poverty. But as an individualistic ethos took hold, the dominant model of marriage shifted from institutional marriage based on gendered roles and economic cooperation to relatively fragile marriages based on companionship, and divorce rates began to climb.”  “Rising divorce rates,” they elaborate, “in turn, have further increased the ideal of individual self-sufficiency.” 

Unfortunately, African Americans have been especially exposed to a truly perfect storm. For the researchers conclude that though “changing ideas about gender and family relationships” have affected white Americans, these ideas affected African Americans “earlier and more strongly because blacks were and continue to be more economically vulnerable.”

But even as they survey the devastation visited upon the institution of marriage among African Americans, the analysts detect signs that similar social devastation may be starting among lower-class whites. “Since 1980,” they observe, “as economic restructuring has eroded opportunities for less-educated whites, they too are seeing dramatic changes in family life.” These dramatic changes among less-educated whites include “high rates of divorce” and “an increasing proportion [who] are likely to never marry.”

As the passions surrounding the nation’s electoral politics make quite clear, Americans are more than willing to talk about threatening economic trends. And they should. But for the sake of African Americans and white Americans, for the sake of parents and children, Americans of all races need to take a hard look at the radically “individualistic ethos” that has so distorted our culture that fewer and fewer Americans of any ethnic background can hold a marriage or family together in the face of economic hardship.

(R. Kelly Raley, Megan M. Sweeney, and Danielle Wondra, “The Growing Racial and Ethnic Divide in U.S. Marriage Patterns,” The Future of Children 25.2 [2015]: 89-109.)