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Posted Feb. 13, 2009

Panel Explores Minority Marriage Gap

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From left: Richard Banks, Leah Sears and Kerry Abrams

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Contact: Rob Seal

Research indicates that marriage is good for society, but there is a pronounced racial divide in the marriage rates and no easy answers on what actions — if any — government should take to rectify it, a panel of experts said Wednesday at the Law School.

Law School professor Kerry Abrams, Stanford Law professor Richard Banks and Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears participated in the discussion, which was presented by the Center for the Study of Race and Law and co-sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, the Black Law Students Association, the Journal of Law & Politics and the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law.

The panelists agreed that marriage is beneficial. Single men have a 250 percent higher mortality rate than married men, and single women have a 50 percent higher mortality rate than married women, Abrams said. Married men are also more likely to have a higher income and to show up for work on time. Happy marriages are also correlated with higher self-esteem among children.

Abrams

Kerry Abrams

“A lot of these studies seem to indicate that marriage is really good for men, a little bit good for women, and really really good for children, and if that’s the case, then I think the state would want to support marriage,” Abrams said.

Despite these statistics, there’s a substantial marriage gap between black and white Americans. Banks said African-Americans have the lowest marriage rate out of all demographics: African-American women are three times as likely to never marry as their white counterparts. Sears said 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock.

The reason behind this marriage gap is the subject of much research. One answer is the rate of incarceration of young black men, which Banks said totals over one million – more than the number of young black men in college. The gap could be the product of a numbers imbalance: There are more marriageable women than men.

But Banks said marriage market issues cannot be the whole answer. If the gap were attributable to a numbers imbalance, one would assume that the available African-American men would all be married.

Banks

Richard Banks

On the contrary, “the men who are in short supply are less likely to marry than their white counterparts,” Banks said. “That’s extraordinary.”

Black men also show a different socioeconomic marriage pattern than men from other races. The typical pattern is that the wealthier a man is, the more likely it is that he will marry. Among black men, however, the pattern is reversed. A black man who makes over $150,000 a year is less likely to marry than a black man who makes $70,000 a year, Banks said.

“Once you study it and see the full dimensions of that gap, it makes you just sit down and say, ‘Wow,’” Banks said.

The question is what should be done about the marriage gap, if anything, the panelists said. Abrams suggested that there are a variety of policies the government can implement, from tax incentives to a reevaluation of some drug laws to increase the pool of marriageable men.

Sears, however, said the marriage rate could be increased without immediately appealing to the government.

Sears

Leah Sears

“All too often, blame is put on the government,” Sears said. “My position has been that if families can come together and stay together, that’s the best child-welfare program we have, and we can do it ourselves. We need to stop sticking our heads in the ground and [start] looking to ourselves to do something about it.”

Banks favored some government intervention but said he was “queasy” about any amount beyond basic levels.

“I think that’s what we should do: support those who want to marry and remove obstacles,” he said. “I have qualms, though, about the wisdom of any efforts that would push people into marriage or that would lock people into marriage once they decide to divorce.”

Sears reminded women that they still have a say in their futures.

“You’ll get married if you want to get married and you require certain things of this person that you want,” she said. “If you want to get married, you will get married. That’s it.”

• Reported by lindsey wagner