It's widely known that low educational attainment, neighborhood racial segregation, and a biased criminal-justice system are detrimental to Black Americans' ability to climb the economic ladder. But Richard Reeves, a policy director at the Center on Children and Families at Brookings, has found that marriage also plays a part.
Marriage across racial lines has shot up in the past few decades, and a Pew Research Center study found that in 2010 about 15 percent of all new marriages in the United States were between couples of different ethnicities, more than double the rate in 1980.
Asian women were most likely to marry outside their own race, followed by Asian men. And an Asian man who married a White woman held the highest median income ($71,800), according to the Pew study. Black women, however, were among the least likely to marry outside their own race. That wouldn't mean much, except when we consider that Black men have one of the lowest educational attainment rates.
"I'm not sure it impedes social mobility, but it maintains a level of social inequality." —Economist William Darity Jr., Duke University
"There's almost a triple dimension of issues [Black women] have to deal with," said Kris Marsh, an associate professor of sociology and demography at the University of Maryland. "One, they have a low, and I quote this, 'out-marriage' rate. And two, if they do marry a Black man, they're more likely to marry someone less educated than themselves. And the other thing that's interesting is that [Black women] "... are much more likely to not marry at all."
The onus doesn't fall on Black women though, Marsh says.
In general, Black Americans face substantially higher rates of poverty than whites, 17 times lower wealth, as well as higher rates of incarceration. Blacks by and large attend the country's worst schools, and are likelier to drop out before graduation, which has contributed to an environment where Black children are more likely to be born into poverty and where they are much less likely to escape it.
In fact, Reeves has found that seven out of 10 Black children born into families in the middle quintile of the income spectrum will actually earn less than their parents as they become adults.
According to the science, the best way to ensure a financially stable future is to get an education. Another way is to choose a partner who has one, too. In economist argot, this is called "assortative mating," which Reeves concedes is a particularly unromantic term that "only a social scientist could come up with."
Assortative mating has increased inequality, because the rate at which a man with a college degree marries a woman with a degree has doubled in the past 40 years, leaving those too poor to afford college to marry someone else who also never attended.
This is important when you take into account that economists find that between 10 and 16 percent of the country's income inequality is due to the "growing correlation of earned incomes received by husbands and wives." That's a conclusion by Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at Brookings notes, which was cited by Reeves.
So how exactly does marriage impact mobility?
A White or Black woman who marries someone less educated will suffer a household income of $25,000 less a year. Because educated Black women more frequently marry a less educated man, the income deficit affects Black families more often.
"I'm not sure it impedes social mobility, but it maintains a level of social inequality," says economist William Darity Jr., the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, who also teaches African and African-American studies. "If we think the solution is to have more wealthy white people marry lower resourced, less wealthy Black people, I'm not sure you can enact that as as social policy."
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.
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