The Racial Gap in Marriage: How the Institution Is Tied to Inequality

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Those who are best positioned economically to live without a partner or to have a child without being married are the least likely to do so

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In her engagingly written Atlantic cover story, Kate Bolick examines the rise of single women as a result of the decline of men. From her own experience she glimpses in men's unfortunate economic struggles a hopeful opportunity for women: to reassess the primacy of marriage, in their own lives and as a cultural ideal, and to embrace their freedom to thrive as single women, without any need or desire for a husband.

However onerous the restrictions of marriage, its primary social effect now is to exacerbate the already wide socioeconomic disparities that understandably trouble so many Americans.

Perhaps the starkest evidence of the racial gap in marriage is that 70 percent of black children are born to unmarried parents.

During the past few decades, marriage has become more associated with socioeconomic status than perhaps at any other time in American history. Marriage has declined substantially among poor people of all races, who are both less likely to marry and more likely to divorce than their counterparts from earlier eras. Meanwhile, the affluent and highly educated are more likely to marry (even if a bit later in life than in earlier eras) and less likely to divorce than their less advantaged counterparts. While college-educated parents tend to delay childbearing until after marriage, less educated women often have children without the benefit of marriage. Indeed, University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus has found that among white women who have their first child in their early 20s -- which college educated white women tend not to do -- fully 60 percent of those mothers are unmarried when their child is born.

The irony here is that those who are best positioned economically to live without a partner or to have a child without being married are the least likely to choose to do so. Among men, the more a man earns, the more likely he is to be married. Among women, what used to be known as the marriage penalty -- a reference to the fact that greater education was associated with lower marriage rates -- has steadily eroded. Now, college-educated women are more likely than their less educated peers to marry and stay married. Economically secure, college-educated men and women may not need marriage, but most of them want it.

The economic consequences of this socioeconomic divide in marriage are accentuated by two other developments. One is that marriages are increasingly between socioeconomic equals, who each contribute economically to the partnership. It used to be that doctors married nurses. Now, thanks to women's advancement, they marry other doctors, and often both continue to work.

The other is that high-earning professionals are partnering at the same time that the economic returns to their advanced education have grown. College graduates have, of course, long earned more than high school graduates, but the economic gap between the two has widened considerably during the past few decades. Wages have fallen at the bottom of the job ladder and risen at the top. As a result, college graduates, according to calculations by an MIT economist, now earn nearly twice as much as high school graduates.

The implication is unavoidable and, for those concerned about inequality, dispiriting: Our economy has richly rewarded the highly educated, and they are consolidating those gains through marriage, widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The marriage gap also contributes to racial inequality. Although the waning of marriage is most pronounced among the black poor, marriage has declined among the black middle class as well. Even college-educated black women are about twice as likely as their white counterparts to be unmarried. Black men at every income level, too, are less likely to be married than their white counterparts.

Perhaps the starkest evidence of the racial gap in marriage is that 70 percent of black children are born to unmarried parents, a figure far higher than for any other group. This means not only that large numbers of black children lack regular interaction with both their parents, but that there are entire communities where two-parent families are rare.

Not only are African Americans the least likely to marry, they are also the most likely to divorce. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, half of black couples divorce within the first 10 years of marriage, while less than a third of whites do so.

The marriage gap has economic consequences as well. One of the reasons that even college-educated African Americans lag behind their white peers financially is that they are less likely to be married, and to enjoy the economic security and stability that a strong marriage helps, over time, to generate. Consider, for example, that college-educated black women earn salaries comparable to their white counterparts, but that white women have much higher household incomes in part because they are more likely to be married. The racial gap in marriage entrenches the disadvantage of the black poor and limits the expansion of the black middle class and undermines its stability.

Inevitably, the decline of men implicates women as well. Men's struggles won't prompt women to live their dreams so much as make it more difficult for them to attain them.

Image: Iozas/Shutterstock.

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Ralph Richard Banks is the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and the author of Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone.

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