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Currently, there are 11 million people — or 1 out of 10 married people — in the United States with a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U. Census Bureau data.


Try out PMC Labs and tell us what you think. Learn More. Professor of sociology and faculty research associate at the Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin. The United States shows striking racial and ethnic differences in marriage patterns. Compared to both white and Hispanic women, black women marry later in life, are less likely to marry at all, and have higher rates of marital instability. Kelly Raley, Megan Sweeney, and Danielle Wondra begin by reviewing common explanations for these differences, which first gained momentum in the s though patterns of marital instability diverged earlier than patterns of marriage formation.

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Raley, Sweeney and, Wondra argue that the racial gap in marriage that emerged in the s, and has grown since, is due partly to broad changes in ideas about family arrangements that have made marriage optional. Race continues to be associated with economic disadvantage, and thus as economic factors have become more relevant to marriage and marital stability, the racial gap in marriage has grown.

In70 percent of non-Hispanic white children ages 0—18 and roughly 59 percent of Hispanic children were living with both of their biological parents. The same was true for only a little more than one-third of black children. Others suggest that common factors, such as economic distress, contribute both to family instability and to developmental problems in children. Regardless, 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.

We begin by describing racial and ethnic differences in marriage formation and stability, then review common explanations for these differences. We also discuss how these gaps have evolved over time and how they relate to social class. To date, many explanations have focused on the poor and working class, even though racial and ethnic differences in family formation exist across the class spectrum. We argue that the racial gap in marriage that emerged in the s, and has grown since, is due partly to broad changes in ideas about family arrangements that have made marriage optional but still desirable.

Although we primarily focus on black-white differences in marriage, we also consider contemporary family patterns for other racial and ethnic groups Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans. New waves of migration have added to the diversity of the United States, and blacks are no longer the largest minority group. Moreover, considering the family patterns of other minority groups, whether disadvantaged or comparatively well-off, can give us insight into the sources of black-white differences.

Our ability to analyze historical marriage trends among Hispanics, however, is limited due to changing measurement strategies in federal data, shifts over time in the characteristics of migrant populations, and the fact that the marriage patterns of migrants differ from those of U. Young adults in the United States are waiting longer to marry than at any other time in the past century.

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Inmore than eight women in ten in their early 40s were or had ever been married. At the same time, racial and ethnic differences in marriage are striking. The median age at first marriage is roughly four years higher for black than for white women: 30 versus 26 years, respectively, in Consequently, a far lower proportion of black women have married at least once by age Our tabulations of data from the U.

Yet fewer than two-thirds of black women reported having married at least once by the same age. Note: Rates are calculated as the of marriages per 1, unmarried women and of divorces per 1, married women. In addition to later age at first marriage and lower proportions ever marrying, black women also have relatively high rates of marital instability see table 1panel B. At nearly every age, divorce rates are higher for black than for white women, and they are generally lowest among Asian and foreign-born Hispanic women.

Census and other similar sources for example, the American Community Survey.

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Moreover, they almost certainly underestimate the size of racial gaps in marital instability, as black women tend to transition more slowly than white women do from separation to legal divorce. This data set contains retrospective histories on the formation and dissolution of cohabiting and marital relationships for a nationally representative sample of women aged 15— Table 2 displays these .

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Consistent with other sources, we again see lower levels of marriage among black women than among white or Hispanic women. Among those who do marry, black women experience more marital instability than do white or Hispanic women. About 60 percent of white women who have ever married are still married in their early 40s, compared to 55 percent of Hispanic women but only 45 percent of black women.

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After ing for women who have never married at all, then, roughly half of white and Hispanic women in their early 40s are stably married, compared to less than a third of black women the same age. Although social scientists sometimes attribute racial differences in family patterns to long-run historical influences such as the legacy of slavery, marriage was common among black families in the early 20th century. From throughblack women tended to marry earlier than white women did, and in the midth century first marriage timing was similar for black and white women.

Racial differences in marriage remained modest as recently aswhen Source: — U. The likelihood of ever marrying by midlife which we define as age 40—44 conveys important information about the nature of group differences in marriage, yet these figures reflect age-specific marriage rates that prevailed at earlier points in time. If we understand the historical timing of the racial divergence in marriage rates with greater precision, we may shed light on what caused the change and variability in family patterns.

Sociologists Robert Mare and Christopher Winship report that during the s, marriage rates began to decline much more rapidly for black women than for white women across all age groups. Although before the s age at first marriage and the proportion of women ever married were similar among whites and blacks, blacks had higher rates of marital dissolution during this period. If we examine the percentage of ever-married white and black women who were currently married and living with their husbands at midlife, the historical story about trends in the racial marriage gap changes somewhat.

Figure 2 displays these. We now see large racial differences in the likelihood of being married even as early aswhen only 69 percent of ever-married black women in their early 40s were married and living with a spouse, compared with roughly 88 percent of white women the same age.

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Some of this difference reflects higher rates of mortality among black men, but some is due to higher rates of separation. In the early s, very small percentages of women, whether black or white, were officially divorced. Still, the proportion was twice as high for black women as for whites.

In short, we can learn much from taking a longer-run view of the black-white marriage gap. We see that the racial gap in marriage formation was minimal through aboutboth in terms of marriage ages and rates, but that the higher rate of marital instability among black than among white women has deeper historical roots. Divorce rates increased earlier and more steeply among black than among white women. After aboutwe see marital instability continue to diverge between black and white women, but we also begin to see a new racial gap in the likelihood of ever marrying, driven by a decline in marriage formation among blacks.

Given the large differences between them, marriage patterns of white and black women have been of particular interest. Empirical research best supports explanations for the black-white marriage gap that involve labor market disparities and other structural disadvantages that black people face, especially black men.

These explanations are rooted in classic demographic arguments about the affordability of marriage and about imbalances in the s of men and women available for marriage. Among men aged 16—24 the racial disparity was even greater, with the unemployment rate for black men three times that of white men. Overall, black men are seven times more likely than white men to be incarcerated. Between andemployed blacks saw real increases in wages relative to whites, partly due to increases in their educational attainment and partly because returns to education also increased.

Not all black men were reaping the benefits of increasing opportunity that came via civil rights legislation. Other explanations for the black-white marriage gap focus on additional constraints on the availability of partners for black women. For example, women tend to marry partners who have accumulated at least as much schooling as they have. But the education gap between men and women is larger for blacks, making this constraint particularly important for black women. Moreover, rates of intermarriage among blacks differ substantially by gender.

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Thus the specialization model suggests that marriage rates should be lower for blacks. Although family scholars are quick to point out that black marriages have historically been less characterized by specialization, considerable evidence suggests that the expectation that men will provide for their families economically is strong across groups.

Marriage rates fell, while the female-to-male wage ratio remained similar across time. Consequently, the sources of racial inequality likely vary by social class. If rising unemployment and incarceration among black men fully explained the racial gap in marriage, we would expect racial differences in marriage among people with the same level of education to be small; we would also expect such differences to be concentrated among economically disadvantaged blacks.

After all, black men without any college education were affected most by both trends. For example, among college-graduate women in71 percent of blacks had ever married, compared to 88 percent of whites see table 3. Moreover, while we see differences by education in the proportion of black women in their early 40s who have ever married, there are no clear educational differences among white women.


We see a similar pattern in the proportion of men who have ever married, although data from show some evidence that white men with a high school degree or less are moving away from marriage. Here we see s that white women with a high school degree or less are beginning to retreat from marriage.

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In fact, marriage rates for college-educated white women in their late 20s and early 30s are higher than those for white women with less education at any age. Their higher marriage rates persist through the peak marrying ages, until their mids. Note: Rates are calculated as the of marriages per 1, unmarried women. Inthe likelihood that ever-married white women were currently married in their early 40s was much lower among the least educated than among the most educated This reflects growing socioeconomic differences in divorce risk, which have also been documented elsewhere.

Back inthere was no clear relationship between educational level and the likelihood that ever-married white women would be currently married at midlife see table 4. The story is quite different for black women. Though table 4 again shows that stable marriage is lower overall among ever-married black women than among ever-married white women, within each educational group, marital instability increased earlier and more dramatically among black women with a high school degree or less.

Even inever-married black women with low levels of education were less likely than the relatively more educated to be married at midlife. To summarize, increases in divorce preceded declines in marriage, beginning first among the most disadvantaged blacks.

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Whites and blacks of all classes have experienced delays in marriage, but declines in the proportion who have ever married at age 40—44 also appeared first for blacks with low levels of education. Bywe began to see an educational divergence in family patterns for whites. First, the college-educated saw declines in divorce, while those without college maintained high levels of divorce.

More recently, whites with the lowest levels of education are beginning to experience delays in marriage relative to college-educated women, and an increasing proportion are likely to never marry. Black-white differences in marriage appear at all levels of education, suggesting that something more than class status is at play.

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