Identity, Top Stories

American Women of Different Racial Backgrounds Are Marrying Less—Why?

Even before the current crisis, many unmarried mothers struggled to support their families and provide a nurturing and stable environment for children. As the marriage rate continues to decline, this is a growing issue. If policy-makers are going to address this problem, we need to debunk some unhelpful myths and develop a better understanding of why women of all races are marrying less. What’s at stake is the future of the children who live in these families.

There has been a steady decline in US marriage rates, from 65.9 percent of adult women in 1960 to 51.1 percent in 2018. Despite this overall trend, many commentators continue to focus on the low marriage rate among black women—32 percent compared to the white rate of 53.7 percent—because of the high share of black children born to unmarried women: 69.4 percent compared to the white rate of 28.9 percent. They point to the difficulties these children face. They preach the success sequence: education, employment, marriage, and then childbearing. They ignore, however, how low employment and educational attainment among unmarried men adversely affect marriage rates within both black and white communities. They ignore how these male shortfalls may have shaped attitudes towards marriage.

The explanations for the much lower black marriage rate are complex and contentious. As a result of the building of the interstate highway system, trucking replaced railroads as the dominant means of transporting manufactured goods. This change initiated a dramatic shift of manufacturing to suburban industrial parks away from central-city locations. Together with an increased exporting of manufacturing jobs, the employment of urban black men collapsed. In the industrial Midwest, the share of young black men employed in manufacturing declined from 40 percent in 1975 to only 12 percent in 1990. By contrast, the drop for young white men was only 10 percentage points.

At the same time, mass incarceration began. Between 1970 and 2005, there was a four-fold increase in incarceration rates that was driven by drug crime prosecutions, particularly in the late 1980s after the introduction of crack. Criminologists Steven Raphael and Michael Stoll found that between 1984 and 2002 prison admissions for violent offenders increased by about 70 percent while those for drug offenders increased by more than 550 percent.

The declining employment and increased incarceration of young black men led some social scientists to focus on the lack of marriageable men as the root cause of the low black marriage rate. In 1999, among 25 – 29 year-olds, there were 27 percent more black women than black men when we exclude the prison population. This, according to these commentators, is why the marriage rate of black women declined by 19 percent between 1980 and 2000. However, their theory doesn’t explain the 18 percent decline between 1970 and 1980. For conservatives, this was the result of the Great Society welfare program.

Twenty years later, despite declining incarceration rates, black women continue to outnumber black men by seven percent. In addition, the available black men—unmarried and not in jail—still have relatively low employment rates. Despite robust increases over the last decade, the employment rate among black unmarried 25 – 45 year-old men is only 71.60 percent compared to 83.37 percent among married black men.

Many commentators have also pointed to the inability of many black women to partner with similarly educated black men. Among black people aged 25 years and older, 42 percent of women and 52 percent of men have no more than a high school degree; and while 33 percent of black women have at least an associate’s degree, the comparable figure for black men is only 25 percent. The mismatch is even greater when you take into account that interracial marriage rates among newlyweds are also substantially higher for black men (24 percent) than for black women (12 percent), with the gap increasing as educational attainment rises. By contrast, Latinas and Asian women are more likely to intermarry than their male counterparts. Thus, disparate educational attainment and out-marriage rates, it is argued, have created further obstacles for unmarried black women.

The discussion concerning the white community is more muted. Between 1995 and 2010, there were significant family formation changes. The share of 12 year-old children born to and still living with married parents declined from 63 to 52 percent, while the share in cohabitating relationships increased from five to 14 percent. However, child stability was still much greater for white than for black children. In 2010, only one-third of black children were living with both biological parents compared to almost three-quarters of white children. At age 12, only one-fifth of black children were born to biological parents who were still married. This may be one reason we haven’t heard as much about the destructive effect of the declining marriage rate among white people as we have about the impact of the opioid crisis.

Looking at the educational attainment of men and women can shed some light on marriage market dynamics. Using composite data for 2008 – 2017, economists Lichter, Price, and Swigert compared the characteristics of currently married men to those of unmarried men aged 25 – 45. They found that the income of married men is 58 percent higher, employment rates are 30 percent higher, and married men are 19 percent more likely to have a four-year college degree than unmarried men. These disparities point to the shortcomings of unmarried men, forcing many women to make compromises if they wish to marry.

Since that study used composite data, it was unable to show trends. My own work compares 2010 and 2019 and I calculated the educational attainment data for white and black men and women separately. Over the nine-year period, women continued to have higher educational attainment than men but the gap changed substantially. Within the black community, the share of unmarried men with at least an associate’s degree increased by 10.22 percentage points, outpacing a 6.02 percentage-point increase among unmarried women. As a result, in 2019, the black educational gap decreased to 6.64 percentage points.

During this nine-year period, changes among white men and women were markedly different. The share of unmarried women with at least an associate’s degree increased by 8.41 percentage points compared to a 4.93 percentage-point increase among men. As a result, the white educational gap increased to 10.01 percentage points. In addition, the employment rate of unmarried white men was 81.55 percent, well below the 91.05 percent among married white men.

Some commentators—like David Brooks and Christina Cross—claim the declining marriage rate reflects its diminished value. In an article entitled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” David Brooks contends that prior to World War II the dominant family type was the extended family in which married couples were embedded within a larger set of family ties: parents, grandparents, and siblings. Once these extended relationships became attenuated in the postwar period, the stand-alone nuclear unit lost much of its value.

But Brooks never explains how abandoning the nuclear family would benefit unmarried mothers and their children. Indeed, the professional class continues to embrace marriage, partly because of its benefits to their children. Moreover, as Kay Hymowitz documents, even in the prewar era when extended families were more prevalent, nuclear families still dominated.

In a New York Times opinion essay, Christina Cross argues that the benefits from the nuclear family are much smaller for black children, particularly when it comes to educational attainment. In her research paper, Cross concedes that the lower educational attainment of black children is correlated with having an unmarried mother as the head of the household. She emphasizes, however, that much of these educational benefits can be explained by the lower age at which unmarried mothers had their first child and the fact that they have lower educational attainment than married mothers. Cross’s research draws attention to a sobering fact: the substantial risks faced by the large share of children born to young unwed mothers with limited educational attainment. In 2018, 29 percent of all black children, compared to 12 percent of white children, were born to unmarried mothers under the age of 25. Leading researchers Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine find: “The gains [to children] from marriage are greatest for women who have [only] high school degrees and have children in their early to mid 20s.”

While it’s possible to quibble with the details of both Brooks’s and Cross’s arguments, it does appear that at least within the black community the social value of marriage has declined. Despite a significant decline in employment and educational gaps between married and unmarried black men, the black female marriage rate still declined by two percentage points over the nine-year period. Even though these gaps closed, black women may be increasingly unwilling to marry less educated and less employed black men.

In addition, black men seem to have a substantially lower propensity to marry than white men. In 2012, among men aged 40 – 44, 85.5 percent of white male college graduates but only 76.5 percent of black male college graduates were ever married. Among those with no more than a high school degree, 77.6 percent of whites but only 57.7 percent of black men were ever married.

There was also a 1.6 percentage-point decline in the marriage rate of white women despite a decline in the employment gap between married and unmarried white men. That suggests the growing educational gap between white unmarried men and women had a more powerful influence than employment. Given the substantial benefits to children from marriage, this is one more reason why future public policies should take the educational shortfalls of white men as seriously as those of black men.


Robert Cherry is a former professor of economics at Brooklyn College.


  1. These disparities point to the shortcomings of unmarried men, forcing many women to make compromises if they wish to marry.

    Beautiful example of the power of framing! It would be so much fun if Quillette published another article, using the same data in support of the complementary statement:

    These disparities point to the shortcomings of unmarried women, forcing many men to make compromises if they wish to marry.

  2. It would be fun, but it would be less accurate.

    Men are less likely than women than women to have a given level of education, more likely to have a criminal history, more likely to abandon a spouse and children to fend for themselves, more likely to adopt practices risky to their health both in the short and long term, and so on. Which is to say, that by any objective measure, any particular man is less likely to be worth marrying than any particular woman.

    Of course, there are many less or unmeasurable characteristics which might make someone worthy or unworthy of marriage, or worthy for one but not another. But on the whole, more men than women are failing to make themselves a good catch.

    It may be that women have too high standards. But Oxford and the SAS have high standards, too, and sensible people do not suggest that they lower their standards, but that any applicants up their game.

    Men have rights, but we also have responsibilities.

  3. Thomas Sowell attributes much of the decline in black culture and families to legislation such as minimum wages and welfare benefits. The resulting idleness led to the spread of drug culture, violence and high incarceration rates. Since he grew up in the midst of the decline, I am inclined to give his views a lot of credit.

  4. This was also central to the article, but I dispute the fact that it’s relevant to determine if someone is worth marrying. There are some correlated factors which could be relevant, most notably income. However, as far as I know men out-earn women. In the US, there is also the issue of college debt, so it’s not impossible that someone with less formal education is in a better financial situation.

    Any individual applicant, yes. However, if their standards were so high that there weren’t sufficient applicants able to fill the spots, I do think that people might tell them to lower their standards. There’s also the matter of there not being enough people interested enough in filling the spots to put in the effort to attain the necessary qualifications.

    Most importantly, I think there’s no point in determining which of the two extremes is the most “accurate” (I would rather use the word “relevant”). I would have said something similar if this particular article was written from the opposite perspective. In order to “develop a better understanding” as the author puts it, both sides should be presented. If this can’t be done in one article, having it done in two is a fun alternative.

  5. This article contains one of the great American myths that the country began zealously prosecuting drug crimes in order to incarcerate black men. Not exactly, in the 1990’s leaders of black communities approached the Justice Department and District Attorneys across the country rightfully complaining that their neighborhoods were being ignored by police. They stated their neighborhoods and schools were infested with gangs and drugs. They maintained that in such an environment their children didn’t stand a chance. In those days the talk was all about crack cocaine, the Crips, the Bloods and the Vice Lords. In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Another fact that often gets left out of the myth is that after drug crimes were vigorously prosecuted, violent crime began a precipitous decline. As everyone (both black and white) knew back then many of those nonviolent drug offenders were also responsible for much of the violent crime. Of course truth be damned because in the media’s view “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

  6. This article goes to great lengths to make something complicated that should be relatively obvious. Marriage rates are declining because for the last 50 years western countries have de-emphasized marriage and motherhood. Focus has been more on women’s careers. Some westerners consider child bearing a sin against the environment. Throughout my childhood I had one only child friend. Each of my children has had close to a dozen only child friends. This is not to lament women working or criticize decisions to have no or less children. I am merely pointing out that the focus of society did shift and what the author is documenting are the results of that shift. The change in focus is not surprising as western countries became less agrarian and more urban. Furthermore the shift in women’s roles has increased family purchasing power. If the roles of women, men or children change in a society then naturally institutions within society are going to change to adapt to those new roles.

  7. It’s very frustrating to deal with people year after year who keep repeating the mantra: “Imprisoned for a small amount of drugs.”

    Men who go to prison generally do so because they have committed serious crimes and, not mere drug possession, but dealing on a regular basis. And dealing on a regular basis means being an affiliate at some level of a drug gang because drug gangs do not simply allow people to deal drugs on a regular basis without permission.

    Men generally do not go to prison if the only thing they have on their records is a count or two of drug possession, or drug possession with intent to sell at the lowest level of that offense. That is, a pocketful of small baggies portioned for street sale.

    The reason why such men do not go to prison - generally - is that there isn’t enough prison space for these guys, even in the private systems. Low level felony drug convictions, if there are only one or two of them, usually bring suspended prison sentences with periods of probation.

    Now, screw up probation with additional offenses - more drug dealing - testing dirty on a piss test - pick up a DUI on a suspended drivers sentence - and then they go to prison for violating their probation on the earlier drug offense, with maybe some additional time tacked on for the new ones.

    If he keeps dealing - even small amounts - after a number of years and - seriously - up to a dozen separate convictions for possession and dealing, then, yeah, a man goes to prison for “a small amount of drugs”.

    But lefties don’t like to hear that. They’re married to the urban myth of the otherwise innocent man who makes a single little mistake involving a small amount of drugs and then goes to prison.

  8. @MorganFoster
    True story. When I was working in law enforcement some rookie drug agents came into my office with some information and questions. They claimed to have a line on a major dealer with significant amounts of uncut product. They wanted to know what additional information they could gather in order to get a search warrant. I told them and then asked the player’s name. I had never heard of him, which was surprising. They said he had just moved here from a major city. I asked with whom was he affiliated. They said, “no one.” I told the new agents if there intelligence was correct that he was in possession of that amount of pure product without any gang affiliation that he would be dead before they could ever get a search warrant. The new dealer was killed that very evening. These are the attributes are the illegal drug trade. I guess one could say Al Capone was just a rum runner.

  9. An important variable that seems to have been overlooked here is substantially increased mental health problems or personality ‘issues’ for both men & women. ‘Word on the street’ informs me there are slim pickings to be found as solid life long family rearing potential. Also, many folks appear to be trying but the relationships are floundering before marriage. Perhaps the youth of today aren’t as resilient & patient in dealing with spousal ‘short comings’ as previous generations & are opting out of relationships early.

  10. I have found marriage to both the ultimate safe space, as well as the place were you can be most hurt. I believe you correctly identify resilience as an necessary attribute.

  11. Recently another professor and I were discussing readings for a literature course we both teach. My married, with one child, colleague explained that she teaches Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” through a feminist lens. She tells the students: See? This is why we need feminism. I know the story well and found this baffling. What in that story demonstrates why we “need feminism?” Woman with heart condition learns her husband might have been killed in a train accident. At first she fears his absence, but then becomes excited about her newfound independence. When the husband returns home, she has a heart attack and dies.

    So if this explains why we need feminism, one can extrapolate that there is something terrible about being married – to a man especially. Never mind that a man could certainly experience the same enthusiasm for the return of his independence should his spouse die. No. This is a FEMINIST story about how bad marriage is for women. So bad it can kill you.

    What’s even more egregious is that a married woman is teaching this to young impressionable minds.

    My own experience in the wilds of dumb feminism also taught me this. At the slightest provocation, a man was to be deemed a reject and summarily dismissed. I look back in shame at the “choices” I made while indoctrinated in this way. Low tolerance for character flaws is taught. For some reason, male character flaws are particularly intolerable. The “strong woman” cuts and runs.

    This doesn’t bode well for marriage.

  12. :laughing: Must I chase women till the day I drop? I am 56 years old. Am I allowed to retire, or not? I love women too much to keep from flirting, however. My latest victim is the very lovely manager of my local discount outlet. Her eyes smile at me, and she stands a little too close and makes small talk in a voice like I’m the only person in the place. I act cool, but I’ve melted totally! :heart_eyes:

  13. MGTOW stands for “Men Going Their Own Way”.

    It has two interpretations. One is that men treat their sex drives like laziness or gluttony and overcome them, freeing themselves of the many stupid decisions that sex drives lead men to make, and simply forgo women entirely. The other is that they refuse anything resembling a relationship and make it clear at the outset of any encounter that there will only be no-strings-attached sex.

    Regardless of the MGTOW flavor, the rationalization is that marriage is a bad deal for men. And though I am also married myself, I agree with this thesis.

    Historically, there were three chief benefits of marriage for men:

    1. Sex, or at least, socially-approved sex. On demand.
    2. Children, which were a man’s legacy and the chief source of his wealth later in life.
    3. A companion and partner who would oversee domestic affairs.

    In the modern world, #1 is a joke. It is increasingly seen that desirable men have more carnally enjoyable sex lives when not “tied down” by monogamous relationships, not to mention the “dead bedroom” problem (Time was, sex with your spouse was regarded as a marital duty. Today, it’s rape). Feminism also promotes the notion that female fidelity should not be expected.

    #2 has lost its appeal for much of society. Children are an expense, not a financial asset. They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise and the return on investment (monetarily) is zero. Having a baby is thought of as the death of a young adult’s social life. First-world birthrates attest to the lost appeal of procreation.

    As for #3, it’s on life-support. Today’s women are taught to be entitled and to treat their husbands as trophies, not partners. The “partnership” is expected to be one-sided and the woman can dissolve it on a whim, with social consequences that are only negative for the man. Verbal and emotional abuse from woman to man is treated as normal. In discussions of pornography or “sexbot” technology, the standard female retort is “those aren’t REAL women; you should want the benefits of being with a REAL woman!” But today, the nonsexual aspects of a “real woman” are often a negative experience for men.

    Not to mention the expanding waistlines.

    Generically, marriage has become a bad deal for men. Do not misunderstand me; I am not saying that it should be abandoned. I am saying that it is quite important that these negative factors be fixed, because we need a working institution of marriage to prosper.

    So why am I married? Why are any of us married? A few points:

    1. Something being a bad deal in the general case does not mean it’s a bad deal in the individual case. If we suppose that 70% of women make for bad wives in this day and age, that implies that up to 30% make for good wives. Marry one of the 30% and you can benefit.
    2. Some people still favor the calculus of #1 or #2 above. Strong Christians, for example, insist on sex within marriage even today. Some men really want children, and they are probably outnumbered by like-minded women.
    3. At the poor end of society, the economics more strongly necessitate partnership. Be warned, such an incentive can easily lead to a bad choice, but it’s there nonetheless.
    4. There is an extent to which all of the factors impacting the calculus of marriage are controllable. Social skills are skills, and a person can develop them, then use them to build an above-average relationship.
  14. I fully understand the attraction of many men to MGTOW. Several friends of mine have been financially devastated by divorce and emotionally devastated by child custody disputes. The tragic willingness of many women to use their children as a weapon to inflict pain upon their former husbands, despite the terrible long term damage this causes their children, is a testament to the enormis feminine capacity for cruelty. Backward laws which favor women over men in the areas of financial support and child custody make marriage a risky venture for men.

    However, despite the risks, I believe marriage to be a worthwhile endeavor for most men. The economic benefits, social benefits, and the fact that married men generally have a better sex life than their single counterparts are all well documented. Furthermore, there is something about marriage that just makes one grow up. There is a maturity that one gains when you must take another person into account whenever you make any significant decision.

    I fear that MGTOW serves as an excuse for many socially awkward, or underachieving men who have difficulty with women. Men, who with a little self reflection and a lot effort, could work on themselves and become viable partners might latch on to MGTOW in order to avoid this painful process of self improvement.

    Your points about marriage in our modern culture and the risks it poses to men are well taken. Still, there are many decent women out there. The answer, as I see it, is extensive vetting. Be careful. Very careful. First rule: never date a feminist.

    (edited for grammar)

  15. People recreate their families of origin when they grow up. If men and women don’t have the experience of cohesive family units, they won’t be able to create cohesive families. They have no idea how to value and build a marriage.

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