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Though more and more Americans are hitting major milestones—like moving in together, buying homes, and having kids—without ever tying the knot, the institution of marriage still plays a pretty important role American life.
More than a simple social benchmark, marriage is also an important factor in creating family structures, which shape children's educational and economic trajectory, and can set a course for whether each successive generation does better than the last. Children from households with single or unwed parents are more likely to have both lower educational attainment and lower income levels, according to data from the Center for Law and Social Policy.
And more than ever, people of higher educational and income attainment are choosing to marry each other, instead of selecting mates from different educational backgrounds. In 1970, only 37 percent of college-educated men had a spouse with a similar level of education. In 2007 that figure was more than 70 percent, according to data from Pew Research. These pairings differ widely by race, with black Americans less likely to marry overall, and college-educated black women less likely than other groups to marry a man with a similar level of education.
The decision to marry someone of a similar educational status is called assortative mating, and for black Americans—particularly black women—the ability to participate in such forms of marital selection are slimmer than they are for women of other races. For one, black women are much more likely than their male counterparts to obtain college degrees. They're also less likely to marry outside of their race, which can leave them with fewer choices when it comes to matching up with someone of a similar educational status. And that can have a ripple effect that impacts not only current earnings, but future economic mobility.
According to a recent memo from the Brookings Institution, when looking at married women ages 25 to 35, about 41 percent of white women had husbands who had similar educational-attainment levels, while only 32 percent of married black women could say the same. About 48 percent of white women reported having husbands with lower levels of educational attainment, while nearly 60 percent of black women had married someone with less education under their belt. That discrepancy could result in a household that earns about $25,000 less each year, according to Brookings.
Bryant Marks, an associate professor at Morehouse College, suggests that looking at educational attainment doesn't tell the entire story. According to Marks, even without a college degree, there are more black men who earn salaries of over $100,000 than black women who earn such salaries, which helps bridge the gap. But those figures are small and Marks concedes that income alone isn't enough to bolster intergenerational mobility, which is especially tenuous within the black community. When it comes to what's more important to securing positive mobility for a family, money is helpful, but education wins out. "Income is not a guarantee, it gives you a leg up for sure but the education trumps that, education is critical," he says.
There is already a large wealth gap between black and white households, which is at its highest level since 1989, according to data from Pew Research. Ralph Richard Banks, a professor at Stanford and author of Is Marriage for White People?, says that a person's ability to choose a partner of similar educational status can play a role in that: "To the extent that a group is disadvantaged in the marriage market, one should not be surprised to see that disadvantage spill over to other aspects of life." According to Brookings, the shift in marriage structure that leaves the most-educated Americans pairing up with each other accounts for between 10 percent and 16 percent of overall income inequality.
"Education breeds money and then when people who have those things marry each other, they consolidate their gains and the gulf grows wider," says Banks. And those returns get passed on to the next generation, in the form of more prestigious—and expensive—education, which can then continue the cycle.
That's bad news for those who aren't able to participate in such forms of advancement at the same rates as other races, especially because educational and wealth gains can be passed down to the next generation, which then helps families solidify their economic standings—a feat that has already proved more difficult for black families.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.
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