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Monday, March 27, 2006

Marriage is for White People

I received an email saying:

There is a lot of economics in this article: 'Marriage Is for White People'. You need to be somewhat brave to post it.

Here it is. As we contemplate immigration policy, it would be helpful to know how much of this problem can be attributed to falling wages and employment opportunities for low-skill labor. The large difference in college attendance between black men and black women is also a factor to consider:

'Marriage Is for White People', by Joy Jones, Commentary, Washington Post: I grew up in a time when two-parent families were still the norm, in both black and white America. Then, as an adult, I saw divorce become more commonplace, then almost a rite of passage. Today it would appear that many -- particularly in the black community -- have dispensed with marriage altogether...

[S]ome 12-year-olds enlightened me ... when I taught a career exploration class. ... I was pleasantly surprised when the boys in the class stated that being a good father was a very important goal to them, more meaningful than making money or having a fancy title. "That's wonderful!" I told my class. "I think I'll invite some couples in to talk about being married and rearing children." "Oh, no," objected one student. "We're not interested in the part about marriage. Only about how to be good fathers." And that's when the other boy chimed in, speaking as if the words left a nasty taste in his mouth: "Marriage is for white people." ...

He's right. At least statistically. ... African Americans ... have the lowest marriage rate of any racial group in the United States. In 2001, according to the U.S. Census, 43.3 percent of black men and 41.9 percent of black women in America had never been married, in contrast to 27.4 percent and 20.7 percent respectively for whites. African American women are the least likely in our society to marry. ... I was stunned to learn that a black child was more likely to grow up living with both parents during slavery days than he or she is today..

Traditional notions of family, especially the extended family network, endure. But ... in an era of brothers on the "down low," the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and the decline of the stable blue-collar jobs that black men used to hold, linking one's fate to a man makes marriage a risky business for a black woman. ...

"Women don't want to marry because they don't want to lose their freedom." Among African Americans, the desire for marriage seems to have a different trajectory for women and men. ... As men mature, and begin to recognize the benefits of having a roost and roots ..., they are more willing to marry and settle down. By this time, however, many of their female peers are satisfied with the lives they have constructed and are less likely to settle for marriage to a man who doesn't bring much to the table. Indeed, he may bring too much to the table: children and their mothers from previous relationships, limited earning power, and the fallout from years of drug use, poor health care, sexual promiscuity. In other words, for the circumspect black woman, marriage may not be a business deal that offers sufficient return on investment.

In the past, marriage was primarily just such a business deal. Among wealthy families, it solidified political alliances or expanded land holdings. For poorer people, it was a means of managing the farm or operating a household. Today, people have become economically self-sufficient as individuals, no longer requiring a spouse for survival. African American women have always had a high rate of labor-force participation. "Why should well-salaried women marry?" asked black feminist and author Alice Dunbar-Nelson as early as 1895. But now instead of access only to low-paying jobs, we can earn a breadwinner's wage, which has changed what we want in a husband. ...

Most single black women over the age of 30 whom I know would not mind getting married, but acknowledge that the kind of man and the quality of marriage they would like to have may not be likely, and they are not desperate enough to simply accept any situation just to have a man. A number of my married friends complain that taking care of their husbands feels like having an additional child to raise. ...

By design or by default, black women cultivate those skills that allow them to maintain themselves (or sometimes even to prosper) without a mate. "If Jesus Christ bought me an engagement ring, I wouldn't take it," a separated thirty-something friend told me. "I'd tell Jesus we could date, but we couldn't marry."

And here's the new twist. African American women aren't the only ones deciding that they can make do alone. Often what happens in black America is a sign of what the rest of America can eventually expect. In his 2003 book, ... Andrew Hacker noted that the structure of white families is evolving in the direction of that of black families of the 1960s. In 1960, 67 percent of black families were headed by a husband and wife, compared to 90.9 percent for whites. By 2000, the figure for white families had dropped to 79.8 percent. Births to unwed white mothers were 22.5 percent in 2001, compared to 2.3 percent in 1960. So my student who thought marriage is for white people may have to rethink that in the future. ...

But human nature being what it is, if marriage is to flourish -- in black or white America -- it will have to offer an individual woman something more than a business alliance, a panacea for what ails the community, or an incubator for rearing children...

Update: See also "The Role of Labor and Marriage Markets, Preference Heterogeneity and the Welfare System in the Life Cycle Decisions of Black, Hispanic and White Women" for recent academic work on this issue.

 

    Posted by on Monday, March 27, 2006 at 11:50 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (26)

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