Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Impact of Race on Divorce in the United States

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Impact of Race on Divorce in the United States

Article excerpt

The study of marital instability continues to attract the attention of social and behavioral scientists including sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists, in part because marital disruption has been observed to have consequences for both individuals and collectivities. There is scattered evidence that marital instability has adverse effects on social and economic wellbeing, and that it negatively affects emotional and mental health (Smock,1993). Indeed, it is well documented in psychiatry, mental health, clinical psychology and psychosomatic medicine that marital dissolution is a crisis and a "profoundly stressful life event" for many people (Wertlieb et al, 1984:18) For instance, separated individuals have been found to be over represented in the psychiatric patient population. Separated people are more likely to be involved in automobile accidents than the married. Marital separation, as opposed to nonseparation, is associated with higher risks of illness and disability as well as high death rates due to suicide, homicide and disease mortality (Kposowa et al., 1994; Kposowa & Singh,1994). Similarly, children whose parents divorce appear to be at high risk for a broad range of health and psychosocial problems (Kitson & Raschke,1981; Olson & Miller,1983; Wertlieb et al., 1984).

Recent research has shown that divorce has negative consequences for both those persons who divorce and their children (Carver & Teachman, 1993) . There is evidence to suggest that children of divorced parents do less well in school, and suffer more emotional and behavioral problems than do children whose biological parents are not divorced (ChaseLansdale & Hetherington, 1990; Emery, 1988; McLanahan Bumpass, 1988) In the light of these negative effects and the relatively high marital dissolution rates in the United States, divorce remains an important sociological and and psychological subject for research. As part of this on-going research process to understand the correlates of divorce, this study focuses on race as a major covariate of marital dissolution.

Race and Divorce

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (1991), there were approximately 7.5 million African American families in the United States in 1990. Of these familes, 50 percent had both spouses present, 44 percent were headed by women with no husband present, and 6 percent were headed by males with no wife present. Among whites, there were 56 million families in 1990, 83% of which had both spouses present; 13% were female-headed, and 4% were male headed with no wife present. The census data (1991) further reveal that among African American families, the percentage with both husband and wife present has been on a steady decline. For example, in 1970, while 68% of all African American families were husband wife families, that number declined to 55% in 1980, and by 1990 it had reached 50% (U.S. Bureau of the Census,1991; Pinkney, 1993 ). The decrease in the percentage of marriages in which both parents are present has been followed by an increase in the proportion of female headed households. Between 1970 and 1990 female headed households among African Americans rose from 28% to 44% (Pinkney, 1993:85).

Among other factors, high divorce rates among African Americans have been blamed for the above decrease in married-couple families, and the concomitant increase in single (often female) headed households. Yet recent analyses of divorce in the United States have produced a major puzzle. An extensive literature has demonstrated that African Americans are more likely to divorce than whites, and that the difference between the two groups is exceptionally strong (Kitson,1985; Glenn & Supanic,1984; White,1990) . Some observers attribute the difference to excess of African American females over males (Guttentag & Secord, 1983) . Others argue that different male-to-female earning ratios are responsible (Secord & Ghee, 1986) . Still other analysts suggest that the factors that predict marital instability for African Americans are not the same that do so for whites (Teachman,1986) In an earlier work, Teachman (1983) reported that premarital births, but not premarital pregnancies, increased the risk of marital dissolution, adding that African Americans differed from whites in that they are less responsive to the effects of a premarital birth or a young age at first marriage in increasing the risk of divorce. …

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