Capitol Thoughts
Capitol Thoughts Archive

Marriage Inequalities by Janaye Ingram

Jun 01, 2012

“It’s too many black women that can say they mothers, but can’t say that they wives.”

The first time I heard that line from Common’s “Retrospect For Life” from his album “One Day It’ll All Make Sense”, I felt a sense of anguish and a bit rueful.  Why was it that so many black women are mothers but not wives?  It’s a question that I haven’t stopped asking.  Last week as I was writing my story on STEM education, I came across a sobering statistic.  In the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study of 15 year old students’ academic performance as well as educational barriers and societal impacts, the United States is noted for having a “particularly large” gap in educational performance between students from single-parent homes and those from “other types of families.”  Obviously, I wondered how that related to black students.  I thought back to that line from the song and my understanding in general that there are too many black children growing up with one parent.  The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the same organization that publishes the PISA noted that in the US a quarter of all children are being raised by a single parent.  But within the black community, 72% of all black children are raised in a single parent household.  Connecting the dots, we see that there is a connection between the fact that there are too many black women who can be called ‘mom’ but not ‘wife’ and the educational achievement of the children they raise. 

A study by the Pew Research Center using 2010 census data found that there was a steep decline in the number of blacks who were getting married.  Among all Americans, the number had decreased 21 percentage points over the last 50 years from 72% in 1960 to 51 % in 2010.  However, in the black community, the decrease was 30 percentage points from 61% to 31% over the same time period.  Even within the last five years, marriage among blacks is down.  The nonprofit organization First Things First reported that in 2003, data from the Census found that 34% of African Americans were married.  And while we see that marriage is declining, census data also revealed that poverty is higher in single-parent households.  So blacks are marrying less and living in dire situations more.  And children suffer the consequences.

This past week I attended the Conference of National Black Churches (CNBC) Conference in Washington, DC.  The CNBC is a coalition of the national leadership of the nine largest historically black denominations – the AME, AME Zion, CME, C.O.G.I.C., and the four Baptist conventions.  At their convening, the discussion of marriage equality was on the program.  At the same time, a federal appeals court ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that deprived gay couples of marriage rights is unconstitutional.  And as we have these discussions about people having equal rights to marry, there is a lack of discussion about how to address the inequalities that are present when marriage is absent from homes – specifically as it pertains to children, education, and poverty. 

In her book, “The Abolition of Marriage,” Maggie Gallagher notes that the number of children born into black marriages averages less than 1 child per marriage, furthering that if the number of out-of-wedlock births stopped completely, that the black population in American would ultimately die off.  As a single black woman with no children and having never been married, I am tired of talking about the statistics of “my kind. I don’t want to read another mainstream media piece about how or why I’m single or see another nightly news story about whether or not I will date outside of my race.  However, I think the examination must be made within our community about why it is more acceptable within our ethnic group to procreate without commitment.  When stories come out in the media about men, be they millionaire football players or minimum wage workers, who don’t care or provide for their children, it worries me.  When stories come out about women who leave their children, it torments me.  What message are we sending our children when brothers and sisters are born weeks apart to parents they will rarely see and barely know or when a man can have 30 children with 11 different women?  But greater than the message that we are sending is the impact it is having on them.  There is some data that would suggest that children who grow up in single parent homes are more likely to repeat the cycle.  Other studies have shown that children who grow up in single parent homes are more aggressive and rebellious and a high percentage of prison inmates have grown up in single parent homes. 

The inequalities in education and socio-economic status, as well as the higher incidences of violence and crime among children raised in single parent homes are related to the decreasing significance in marriage as an institution.  As we examine education on a deeper level, we recognize the need for strong black male role models in the classroom to fill the void left by fathers who are no longer by children’s sides.  In addition, women already earning less than men must work twice as hard to achieve the salary of two individuals.  Our children, already criminalized at young ages, are more susceptible to higher rates of violence and crime when they are raised in single parent homes.  These are just the effects that have been measured and tracked.  While this picture is not always the case and there are children from single parent homes who not only succeed, but excel, the reality is that within the black community, the number of black marriages continue to decline.  As marriage declines, these negative and unintended consequences increase.  That inverse relationship is one that I don’t want to see flourish. 

What is wrong with our priorities and values when we don’t figure out ways to start moving the statistics in the opposite direction but instead are more concerned with preventing a certain group of people from marrying?  This is not just a failure of leadership that will impact the children who are affected; this is a failure that will affect our people and our community as a whole.  And yet, somehow, this lack of matrimonial commitment within our community is not being examined.  This is an issue that we must be at the forefront of addressing.  We cannot allow the conversation to be about which groups should be banned marriage rights.  Instead we need to be examining what barriers exist to marriage in the black community and how we overcome them.  The real conversation about marriage that we should be having is on the inequalities and negative effects our children face as they grow up with parents who aren’t or have never been married.  That’s the real fight for marriage.  Let’s not just “preserve” it as some artifact of days gone by, let’s promote it within our community.