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 1960s (though patterns of marital instability diverged earlier than patterns of marriage formation). Structural factors—for example, declining employment prospects and rising incarceration rates for unskilled black men—clearly play a role, the authors write, but such factors don’t fully explain the divergence in marriage patterns. In particular, they don’t tell us why we see racial and ethnic differences in marriage across all levels of education, and not just among the unskilled.
Raley, Sweeney and, Wondra argue that the racial gap in marriage that emerged in the 1960s, and has grown since, is due partly to broad changes in ideas about family arrangements that have made marriage optional. As the imperative to marry has fallen, alongside other changes in the economy that have increased women’s economic contributions to the household, socioeconomic standing has become increasingly important for marriage. 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.