More Marriage, Less Racial Disparity?

The consequences of the breakdown of the family are obvious. Illegitimacy, fatherless children, poverty, more welfare dependency, etc. Instability and insecurity are recurring themes. Marriage doesn’t solve the world’s problems or protect children from all harm, but children living with their married, biological parents generally are better off emotionally, financially, and physically than children living in any other kind of household. 

And so are the parents.

Family Studies published an article based on a talk by W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, on the marriage divide between the college-educated and the less-educated, and the consequences.

The standard portrayals of economic life for ordinary American families paint a picture of stagnancy, even decline, amidst rising economic inequality. But rarely does the public conversation about our changing economy, from the pages of the New York Times to the halls of the Brookings Institution, focus on questions of family structure. This is a major oversight: though few realize it, the retreat from marriage plays a central role in the changing economic landscape of American families, in race relations in America, and in the deteriorating fortunes of poor boys. In a word, the increasingly “separate and unequal” character of family life in the United States is fueling economic, racial, and gender inequality.

First, Americans exhibit a growing class divide in marriage where the college-educated are more likely to enjoy high-quality, stable marriages than the less-educated. For instance, since the divorce revolution of the 1970s, divorce has fallen among college-educated Americans, while remaining comparatively common among Americans without college degrees.

College-educated parents “and their kids are flourishing not only because of educational advantages, but also because the parents are more likely to be stably married.”

Lower-income children are more likely to grow up in female-headed households, which increase the risk of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, school suspension and expulsion, and criminal activity.

Wilcox raised a chicken-or-the-egg question. Did economic disparities cause families to become unstable, or did family instability cause economic disparities? He points to family changes beginning in the 1960s, such as having babies outside marriage and the rising rate of divorce, as “strong evidence” that instability came before economic disparities.

What about marriage and race?

The retreat from marriage also looms large in another form of economic inequality in America: racial inequality. Sociologist Deirdre Bloome has noted that in 1968, “just following the height of the civil rights struggle and the year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, African American families’ median income was 60 percent as large as white families’ median income. In 2008, it remained 60 percent as large.” The racial gap in individual income, however, narrowed during that period. The explanation for that paradox: single parenthood grew faster among blacks than among whites amid the family revolution of the last half century. In Bloome’s words, “[racial] inequality might have declined further if the prevalence of single-parent families had not risen especially quickly among African Americans. Demographic trends may have slowed progress toward racial equality.”

In other words, family instability made racial disparities worse. Would more marriage among blacks narrow racial disparities?

William Julius Wilson, a black sociologist, posited that economic changes made the family less stable, but Wilcox said there’s more to it than that. 

“At least three other factors also underlie the decline of marriage in the U.S.: culture, welfare policy, and civic change.”

A permissive culture and eroding traditional values made matters worse. People still want to get married, Wilcox said, but “cultural changes stemming from individualism, feminism, and the sexual revolution” have made people become less committed to behavior conducive to stable marriages.

Racial disparities won’t disappear, even if every black child were born and raised by their married, biological parents. The reasons for disparities vary — and aren’t evidence of racism — but every child deserves to grow up under the protection of a stable home. 

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