Understanding Racial Differences in Marital Disruption: Recent Trends and Explanations
Sweeney, Megan M., Phillips, Julie A., Journal of Marriage and Family
We use data from the Current Population Survey to investigate racial differences in recent patterns of marital disruption. Although a leveling in the trend of disruption has occurred for White women since 1980, our results suggest less stabilization in rates of disruption among Black women. We also observe significant differences by race in the effects of key compositional factors on the risk of marital disruption, including age at marriage, education, premarital childbearing, and region of residence. Differences in population composition with respect to these characteristics, however, cannot alone explain the overall racial gap in disruption.
Key Words: divorce, family, race, United States.
Social scientists have devoted relatively little attention to documenting racial differentials in recent patterns of marital disruption, despite tremendous historical interest in understanding racial differences in family life in the United States (e.g., Cherlin, 1992; Moynihan, 1965; Wilson, 1987). This is particularly surprising given negative economic, emotional, and health outcomes associated with divorce (Amato, 2000; Holden & Smock, 1991; Waite, 1995), evidence of higher levels of disruption among Blacks than Whites (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002; Raley & Bumpass, 2003), and the considerable attention paid to racial differences in patterns of marriage formation (e.g., Bennett, Bloom, & Craig, 1989; Lichter, LeClere, & McLaughlin, 1991; Raley, 1996). Our study used data from multiple years of the June Current Population Survey to improve our understanding of racial variation in marital disruption, both by examining within-race patterns of disruption and by investigating between-race differences in the correlates and level of disruption.
We asked three sets of specific questions in the current research. First, we asked whether the leveling of trends in divorce observed in the United States since 1980 was experienced for both Black and White women. Recent race-specific period trends in marital disruption have not been well documented, which is particularly surprising given that historical fluctuations in levels of marital disruption in the United States are generally better accounted for by period than by cohort effects (Teachman, 2002; Thornton & Rodgers, 1987; but see Ono, 1999). Although population-level demographic trends tend to reflect the experience of the majority White population in the United States, social scientists and policy makers may overlook an important contributor to the economic and emotional well-being of adults and children if they erroneously assume stability in patterns of marital disruption among African Americans.
Second, to investigate potential racial variation in the culture of marriage and divorce, we explored differences between Black and White women in the effects of potential risk factors for marital disruption. Prior research points to historically rooted racial differences in family norms, such as the level of stigma associated with nonmarital childbearing and the conditions under which a marriage should be ended (Pagnini & Morgan, 1996). Several studies indicate that the destabilizing effect of age at marriage and premarital childbearing may be somewhat stronger among Whites than among Blacks (Billy, Landale, & McLaughlin, 1986; Heaton & Jacobson, 1994; Castro Martin & Bumpass, 1989; Teachman, 1983, 1986), and racial differences are also found in the effects of risk factors such as education and region of residence (Greenstein, 1990; Heaton & Jacobson). Few prior studies conduct formal statistical tests of racial differences in the effects of these covariates, however, or examine whether the effects of risk factors for disruption may have changed over time for Blacks and Whites.
Third, we investigated whether variation in the composition of populations of married Black and White women with respect to key risk factors can explain observed differences in the level of marital disruption experienced by these groups in recent years. For example, Black married women are more likely to have had a premarital birth and tend to be somewhat less educated than White married women (e.g., Greenstein, 1990; Teachman, 1986; Tzeng & Mare, 1995). Tzeng and Mare find differences in levels of educational attainment and premarital childbearing to be among the largest contributors to the racial gap in disruption, although together these factors explain less than a quarter of the total race difference in their sample. Not all compositional differences in risk factors, however, are expected to contribute to relatively higher rates of disruption among Blacks. For example, Black women tend to marry at older ages than White women (e.g., Sweet & Bumpass, 1987), which should reduce their risk of disruption relative to White women. Black women also tend to be somewhat less likely to live in the western United States than are White women (McKinnon, 2003). The West typically registers the highest disruption rates, a pattern largely attributed to distinct cultural values and attitudes in the West that are less conducive to stable marriages, although some evidence suggests that this regional effect may have weakened by the mid-1980s (Castro Martin & Bumpass, 1989). Taken together, these patterns suggest that racial differences in exposure to risk factors for marital instability may have offsetting effects on the observed racial gap in marital disruption. Existing research, however, has not investigated the contribution of compositional factors to racial differences in disruption in the period since the mid to late 1980s.
Data and Measures
Data for our research came from the 1985, 1990, and 1995 June Current Population Surveys (CPS). Data are limited to ever-married White and Black women between the ages of 15 and 65 at the time of interview. We restricted our study to women because of evidence of relatively poorer quality of male marital histories and poorer coverage of men in survey data, particularly among men who are Black or not currently married (Bumpass, Castro Martin, & Sweet, 1991).
The CPS data are an important resource for the study of racial differences in marital disruption. Many prior studies have been limited in their ability to examine racial differences in the trends and correlates of marital disruption because of insufficient sample sizes. Large sample sizes are needed particularly to reliably document annual rates of marital disruption for racial and ethnic subpopulations. The CPS is administered to relatively large numbers of respondents, thereby ensuring adequate sample sizes of both White and Black women for our research. For example, the 1995 June CPS sample includes approximately 1,325 Black women whose first marriages ended in separation or divorce, compared with approximately 530 Black women who experienced these events in the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth, and 580 Black women (by the 1992-1994 interview) in the National Survey of Families and Households (authors' tabulations). Pooling data from multiple CPS interview years further increases the size of our analytical sample. The CPS also permits use of the date of separation to identify the occurrence and timing of marital disruption. This is important given that a formal divorce may not be obtained until at least one partner wishes to remarry, and given well-established differences between Blacks and Whites in the propensity to divorce after separation (Bramlett & Mosher, 2001).
Although our use of the CPS restricts the array of covariates we can consider, these data do contain information on many well-established risk factors for marital disruption, including age at first marriage, having had a premarital birth, having had a premarital conception (but not 'a premarital birth), educational attainment, and region of residence. All measures reflect information gathered at the time of interview, although it is important to keep in mind that educational attainment and region of residence may change over the course of a marriage. We used values imputed by the Census Bureau in cases of inconsistent data or item nonresponse.
Mean values of our key covariates in the year of marriage are shown in Table 1. Consistent with findings from other samples, Black women in the CPS tend to have married at an older age and are somewhat less well educated than White women. Black women are also substantially more likely to have had a birth before marriage, with more than 45% of Black women but fewer than 13% of White women having had a birth before marriage. Another 11% of both White and Black women experience a premarital conception but marry before the birth. Finally, Black women in our sample are more likely to live in the South, and less likely to live in other regions of the United States than are White women.
Our research proceeds in a series of three stages. In the first stage of the analysis, we documented and compared crude rates of divorce and marital disruption for first marriages among representative populations of White and Black women. We defined marital disruption as the self-reported date that the respondent stopped living with her spouse, regardless of whether a legal divorce was subsequently obtained. To minimize errors in recall, we limited our analysis to periods within 15 years of the CPS interview date, yielding a time series spanning from 1970 to 1994. Our primary question at this stage of the analysis was whether populations of Black and White women both experienced a leveling in trends of disruption after 1980, as has been found for the overall U.S. population (e.g., Goldstein, 1999).
The second stage of our analysis investigated other potential racial differences in the experience of marital disruption and had two substantive aims. First, we investigated potential racial differences in the effects of covariates on disruption of first marriages. Second, research indicates remarkable stability over time in the effects of risk factors on marital disruption in the U.S. population (Teachman, 2002), but no recent work to our knowledge investigates whether this conclusion holds within racial subpopulations. Thus, we further examined whether the effects of covariates on the risk of marital disruption have changed over time within populations of Black and White women, comparing results for the 1970-1979 period with those for the 1980-1989 and 1990-1994 periods. We used the 1970-1979 period as the reference group for our temporal analysis for two reasons. First, the stabilization in divorce trends for the population as a whole began in approximately 1980, suggesting a potential turning point for patterns of disruption. Sec ond, considerably more is known about racial differences in marital disruption in the period before 1980 than in the years that followed; thus, our approach highlights recent change in patterns of disruption.
To achieve these aims, the second stage of our analysis used logistic regression to estimate discrete-time survival models of marital disruption. This approach permits the estimation of effects of fixed and time-varying covariates on dissolution and avoids the assumption of proportional hazards. We estimated separate models for Blacks and Whites rather than the equivalent fully interactive model pooling data by race because of the relatively greater ease in assessing the statistical significance of covariate effects within each racial group using the former approach. We used a standard Wald chi-squared statistic to test the null hypothesis of equality of Black and White coefficients (Allison, 1995; Clogg, Petkova, & Haritou, 1995).
Historical period was treated as a time-varying covariate in our analysis; all other variables are fixed. Data were organized into person-year records, with one record for each year that an individual was at risk of disruption (i.e., in a first marriage), including years in which a disruption was observed. All models included controls for marital duration in years. Our dependent variable indicates whether disruption occurred in a particular marital duration year. We examined disruption during the first 10 years of marriage and limited the analytical sample to marriages that were formed within 15 years of the CPS interview date. In addition to reducing recall bias, this limitation has the advantage of reducing measurement error in variables such as education and region of residence, which are fixed at the time of interview. Because patterns of marital stability are known to differ for first and higher order marriages (e.g., Castro Martin & Bumpass, 1989), we again limited our analysis to women's first marriages.
Finally, in the third stage of the analysis, we decomposed these regression results to determine the contribution of differences in population composition with respect to age at marriage, educational attainment, having had a premarital birth or conception, and region of residence to the overall racial gap in the level of marital disruption. We present decomposition results only for the most recent period (1990-1994) because, to our knowledge, no previously published studies have investigated the relative contribution of compositional differences to the racial differential in marital disruption observed since 1990.
Stage 1: Descriptive Examination of Trends in Crude Rates of Marital Disruption
We first examined trends in annual crude rates of marital disruption in the post-1970 period to determine whether the plateau in overall disruption rates since 1980 exists for the White and Black populations separately. For purposes of comparison (e.g., Goldstein, 1999), we conducted parallel examinations of legal divorce and disruption defined by the date of separation. Figure 1 displays smoothed (3-year averages) race-specific crude divorce rates and crude disruption rates, respectively (see Sweeney and Phillips, 2003, for information on the complete unsmoothed data series). Consistent with previous analyses, we found that divorce rates are higher for Blacks than for Whites throughout this period. The figure also confirms that divorce rates for White women continued to increase during the late 1970s, reaching a peak in 1979, and then stabilized (and even declined somewhat) during the 1980s. Although the level of divorce is consistently higher for Blacks than for Whites, trends in divorce rates were similar for these groups until the mid-1980s. Beginning in the mid to late 1980s, however, crude divorce rates for Blacks appeared to drift upward, leading to some growth in the racial gap in divorce. Indeed, the smoothed divorce rate among White women was 9% lower than that of Black women in 1980, but by 1993, this difference had expanded to 29%.
Black women's relatively lower propensity to legally divorce after separation makes the date of separation a more appropriate measure of marital disruption for our purposes. Figure 1 shows that racial differences in the level of marital disruption are considerably larger when the end of marriage is determined by the date of separation rather than by legal divorce. Our results suggest that the increase in rates of marital disruption since the mid-1970s has been steeper among Blacks than among Whites. Although the disruption rate appeared to level off for Whites in the post-1980 period, it began to rise for Blacks beginning in the mid-1980s. This again raises the possibility that the leveling of period trends in marital disruption after 1980, which was demonstrated by Goldstein (1999) using formal divorce rates for the general population, may not similarly characterize trends in marital disruption among African Americans.
Stage 2: Multivariate Analysis of Disruption Within 10 Years of First Marriage
To examine racial differences in the risk factors for marital disruption, we next estimated discrete-time hazard models of disruption. Given the limited value of legal divorce as a marker of the end of marriage, particularly for African Americans, we restricted these analyses to marital disruption defined by the date of separation. Our multivariate analyses were based on weighted data, as suggested by Winship and Radbill (1994) for situations in which model fit is significantly improved by adding the weight variable and the full set of covariate interactions with the weight variable (see also DuMouchel & Duncan, 1983). Substantive conclusions drawn from weighted and unweighted results, however, were quite similar. We used STATA's svylogit procedure to obtain Huber-White robust variance estimates (StataCorp, 2001).
Table 2 presents the results of the multivariate analyses of disruption within 10 years of first marriage. Although period trends are not the primary focus of this stage of the analysis, a few points are worth mentioning. First, as shown in Table 2, we see that the odds of disruption among Whites are significantly lower in 1970-1974 than in later periods. Additional Wald tests (not shown here) indicate that the coefficients for the 1975-1979, 1980-1984, 1985-1989, and 1990-1994 periods are not significantly different from one another. This is consistent with the argument that rates of disruption have stabilized among Whites beginning in the mid-1970s. The story for Blacks is somewhat more complicated. Although WaId tests again suggest that the coefficients for the 1975-1979, 1980-1984, 1985-1989, and 1990-1994 periods are not significantly different from one another, and we found no significant differences between the 1970-1974 period and the 1975-1989 periods, we see suggestive evidence (significant at the .10 level for a two-tailed test) that the odds of divorce were higher in the 1990-1994 period than in the 1970-1974 period. Additional evidence using data from more recent years will be needed to determine whether this hint of a divergence, also suggested by the crude rates of divorce and disruption displayed in Figure 1, develops into a statistically meaningful trend.
Our primary goal at this stage of the analysis was to examine the effects of potential risk factors for divorce separately for White and Black women. Consistent with prior research, we found that age at marriage has stronger effects on marital disruption among Whites than among Blacks, as shown in Table 2. For example, White women who marry for the first time between the ages of 23 and 29 display a 55% lower risk of disruption than similar White women who married for the first time as teenagers. Among Black women marrying between the ages of 23 and 29, however, the risk of disruption is only 40% lower than similar women who married as teenagers. Our results also suggest that educational attainment is more strongly related to disruption among Blacks than among Whites. For example, having completed 16 or more years of schooling (versus fewer than 12 years) is associated with a 20% reduction in the odds of disruption among Whites, but a 40% reduction in the odds of disruption among Blacks. We further observed a large racial difference in the effect of a premarital birth on marital disruption, with premarital births destabilizing marriage significantly more among Whiles than among Blacks. Indeed, having had a premarital birth (versus having neither a premarital birth nor premarital conception) is associated with a 73% increased risk of marital disruption among White women, but has a much smaller and statistically insignificant effect among Black women. Although coefficients for premarital conception do not differ meaningfully by race, this effect is only significant among White women. Finally, we see some evidence of differing effects of region, with southern residence (relative to living in the Midwest) associated with a destabilizing effect on marriage among White women, but a stabilizing effect on marriage among Black women. Further, the risk of marital disruption is significantly higher for White women living in the West (relative to the Midwest), although there is no significant effect on disruption of western residence for Black women. Future work should investigate whether these differences are better explained by regional differences in prevailing attitudes toward marriage and divorce within racial groups, or by other factors that tend to vary across race and region, such as local labor market opportunities.
We next examined whether the effects of risk factors for marital disruption may have changed over time within each racial group. For the sake of parsimony, we focused here on three time periods: 1970-1979, 1980-1989, and 1990-1994. These results are shown in Table 3. Although our results point to considerable stability in risk factors for disruption, we did find evidence of change over time in the effects of educational attainment and region of residence. Among Whites, having at least 16 years of education (versus having less than 12 years) is associated with an 8% reduction in the odds of disruption in the 1970-1979 period, but a 39% reduction in the odds of disruption in the 1990-1994 period. We see even stronger evidence of growth over time in the protective effect of education among Blacks. Having 12 years of schooling is associated with a 13% reduction in the odds of disruption for Blacks in the 1970-1979 period, but a 67% reduction in the odds of disruption in the 1990-1994 period. Having 16 or more years of schooling is associated with a 19% reduction in the odds of disruption in the 1970-1979 period, but a 75% reduction in the odds of disruption in the 1990-1994 period. For Whites, we also see some evidence of decline over time in regional variation in marital instability. Living in the West (rather than the Midwest) is associated with a 31% increase in the odds of marital disruption for Whites in the 1970-1979 period, but with no increase in the odds of disruption in the 1990-1994 period.
Stage 3: Contribution of Composition to Recent Racial Difference in Disruption
Finally, we investigated the extent to which racial differences in the level of marital disruption during the 1990-1994 period can be explained by differences in the composition of White and Black populations of married women with respect to age at marriage, education, premarital births and conceptions, and region of residence. The contributions of differing compositions of Black and White populations of married women to the total racial gap in the expected log odds of marital disruption are displayed in Table 4. The first column of the table displays results when White women are used as the standard population for the decomposition exercise, and the second column displays results when Black women are used as the standard population.
As anticipated, we identified offsetting effects of population composition on the racial gap in disruption, regardless of whether the White or Black population was used as the standard for the decomposition exercise. For example, Black women's older average age at marriage tends to reduce the racial gap in marital disruption, whereas racial differences in educational attainment and premarital childbearing tend to increase the size of this racial gap. Yet differences in the composition of populations of married women with respect to the variables considered here cannot fully explain the overall racial difference in disruption. Such differences explain approximately 40% of the racial gap when White women were used as the standard population, but none of the total racial gap when Black women were used as the standard population. The difference in the proportion explained across standard populations is large primarily because of differing effects of premarital births and region of residence for Black and for White women. For example, a premarital birth increases the risk of disruption for both White and Black women, but the estimated effect for White women is over four times that for Black women.
These two sets of estimates can be viewed as more and less conservative indicators of the true contribution of composition in explaining the racial disruption gap. A simple average of the two estimates (following Oaxaca, 1973) suggests that less than 20% of the White-Black disruption differential can be explained by differences in composition. Clearly, much of the racial differential in marital disruption remains unexplained, as found by prior analyses focusing on earlier historical periods (Heaton & Jacobson, 1994; Tzeng & Mare, 1995).
Our results suggest that the well-documented leveling in trends of marital disruption may not have been experienced equally across subpopulations. Although trends over this period have not progressed in an entirely monotonic fashion, we found that rates for White women stabilized after the mid-1970s, whereas rates of disruption for Black women increased somewhat since the late 1980s. Investigating whether this recent divergence is meaningful, and whether it has continued to develop over time, will be an important line of inquiry for future research as data for more recent periods become available. We also found evidence of racial differences in the effects of risk factors for marital disruption, including age at first marriage, premarital childbearing, and region of residence. Despite large compositional differences in the populations of Black and White married women, however, we found that the compositional factors examined here explain little of the overall difference in recent levels of marital disruption by race.
Although our analysis makes important contributions to our understanding of racial differences in marital disruption, it also suffers from several limitations that should be addressed in future work. For example, although a major strength of the CPS lies in its large sample size, which is essential for tracking period trends in marital disruption for subpopulations, we were able to consider only a limited array of potential risk factors for marital instability. Future research should confirm and expand upon our results with a larger array of risk factors for divorce. For example, given the theoretical importance of male employment prospects for marriage and marital stability (e.g., Wilson, 1987), it will be important to consider differences in the characteristics of husbands, as well as local economic opportunities and other contextual characteristics, when attempting to explain racial variation in marital instability.
Another limitation of the current analysis relates to the experience of nonmarital cohabitation. Some suggest that the post-1980 plateau in marital disruption may be explained by the dramatic rise in nonmarital cohabitation in recent years (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989; but see Goldstein, 1999). Bumpass and Lu (2000) found that although cohabitation has increased among both Whites and Blacks since the late 1980s, the rate of increase was relatively greater among Whites during this period. Thus, growth in cohabitation may have contributed to the observed racial divergence in disruption trends by placing more downward pressure on marital instability among Whites than among Blacks. Unfortunately, the CPS does not provide detailed information on cohabitation for the entire period examined here (Casper & Cohen, 2000), but future work should explore this possible explanation for racial differences in trends of disruption.
Finally, our time series extends only through the mid-1990s, and ends just before a massive overhaul of the U.S. welfare system was passed by Congress in 1996 as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). The new law limited the length of time that families could receive welfare payments and had as an explicit goal the encouragement of marriage. Although it will be difficult to distinguish the effects of welfare reform on marriage formation and disruption in the later 1990s from the effects of a strong economy, future work should investigate whether trends in marital disruption changed after 1995, and carefully examine patterns of disruption in the early years of the 21st century, a period when a reformed welfare regime no longer overlapped with a booming economy. Such analyses may be particularly important for understanding racial differences in marital disruption because welfare receipt rates are shown to vary by race (Moffitt & Gottschalk, 2001).
Despite the limitations of the current research, this study contributes to growing evidence of large and incompletely understood differences in the family patterns of Whites and Blacks. Our results highlight the importance of investigating explicitly the trends and correlates of marital disruption separately across racial groups. These studies face new challenges because of recent reductions in the richness of information available on marital histories from sources such as the U.S. vital statistics system, the decennial census, and the Current Population Survey. These challenges notwithstanding, we hope that this analysis spurs further research to better document and explain racial differences in family life.
A previous version of this article was presented at the annual meetings of the Population Association of America, Washington, DC, March 28-31, 2001. The authors gratefully acknowledge support from the Rutgers University Research Council and the UCLA Academic Senate Council on Research. We thank Judith Seltzer and anonymous reviewers for comments on a previous version of this article, and Ji-Woong Kirn, Hongbo Wang, and Xiaohui Xin for research assistance.
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MEGAN M. SWEENEY University of California-Los Angeles
JULIE A. PHILLIPS Rutgers University*
Department of Sociology, University of California-Los Angeles, 264 Haines Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095 (Msweeney@soc.ucla.edu).
* Department of Sociology, Rutgers University, 54 Joyce Kilmer Avenue, Piscataway, NJ 08854.…
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Publication information: Article title: Understanding Racial Differences in Marital Disruption: Recent Trends and Explanations. Contributors: Sweeney, Megan M. - Author, Phillips, Julie A. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Marriage and Family. Volume: 66. Issue: 3 Publication date: August 2004. Page number: 639+. © 2002 Journal of Marriage and Family. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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