Our new book Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos paints a largely positive portrait of African American and Latino family life in the United States, especially compared to some contemporary accounts. We find that most African Americans and Latinos will marry at some point in their lives, most of them are married or in a live-in relationship when they have children, and most black and Latino couples are happy and faithful.
When it comes to “family values,” a clear majority of blacks and Latinos value marriage above single living, and they are also more likely than whites to oppose premarital sex. Moreover, the vast majority abides by a “code of decency” (a term coined by Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson) that encompasses employment, steering clear of drug use, and avoiding incarceration; this code furnishes a social and economic context that fosters a strong family life. Taken together, these findings suggest that black and Latino family life is in better shape than some critics have suggested.
In many ways the broad contours of white and Latino family life are similar. This raises the question of what scholars have called the Hispanic paradox: the fact that Latinos are healthier than one might expect, given their economic status in American society. Our book suggests that this paradox extends to family life. Latinos are about as likely to marry, stay married, and enjoy a happy relationship as are whites in the United States. The median age at first marriage is 25 for Latinas and white women, but 31 for African American women. Likewise, only 35 percent of Latinos divorce within the first ten years of marriage, compared to 39 percent of whites and 52 percent of African Americans.
The paradox resides in the fact that Latinos generally have less education and income than do whites. And they have about the same levels of education and income as do African Americans, who marry less often and later, and divorce more often. We are not entirely sure if personal factors, such as individual ambition associated with migration, or cultural factors like Latino familism—things our data analysis does not completely capture—account for this Hispanic paradox. But it is worth noting that foreign-born Latinos are especially likely to get married and stay married, which suggests that either they bring a strong family orientation from the land of their birth, or they enjoy distinctive personal qualities as immigrants that somehow strengthen their family lives (or some combination of both).
Soul Mates also explores some of the structural and cultural sources of family fragility among African Americans. Their nonmarital childbearing, single parenthood, and divorce rates are comparatively high, and their marriage quality and rates are comparatively low. Today 52 percent of African American children live with a single parent, compared to 27 percent of Latino children and 19 percent of white children. Black family fragility is in some ways surprising. Religion is generally a force for family harmony, and African Americans attend church more often than anyone. This led us to wonder if religion plays a different role for African American families than it does for Americans more generally. Evidence does not suggest that religion works against black family strength. Indeed, for African Americans, as for other Americans, it appears to be a largely positive force in family life.
So what does account for the relative fragility of African American families? When it comes to nonmarital childbearing and divorce, we are able to identify some structural factors, such as income and education, and some cultural factors, such as attitudes and sexual behavior, that account for a substantial share of the racial divide. For other outcomes, such as marriage rates and relationship quality, we are not able to explain the divide with the data available to us. Like other scholars, we do not fully know what makes black family life distinctive in these ways.
Still, our findings and our reading of the literature point to four key factors that contribute to racial differences in American family life. First, the nation’s poisonous legacy of slavery, segregation, and discrimination continues to play an important role in accounting for the racial fissures in family life. Second, the unraveling of America’s strong industrial economy, which used to furnish stable, decent-paying jobs to blue-collar men, has resulted in fewer employment opportunities for low-skilled workers. This has undercut the economic foundations of black family life. Third, cultural factors, such as greater acceptance of single motherhood, play a role. Finally, ill-conceived public policies—such as drug laws that have had a disparate impact upon blacks, or means-tested programs that penalize marriage among lower-income couples—have tragically injured black family life.
The consequences have been especially grievous for black men, as evidenced by low employment and high rates of incarceration and infidelity. Between 2000 and 2012, 38 percent of black men aged 18–60 were not employed full-time, compared to 24 percent of Latino men and 26 percent of white men. This trend has left black men less marriageable, a key development in the relatively high level of family fragility among African Americans.
All of these dynamics have operated in concert to take a serious toll on black families. Although academia continues to debate the relative importance that discrimination, poverty, public policy, and culture play in accounting for black family fragility, no one can dispute the fact that single parenthood and family instability coupled with lower relationship quality pose challenges to African American men, women, and children. Given the strong relationship between marriage and overall well-being, African Americans’ retreat from marriage has tragically undermined equality in the United States.
For Latinos, family life is comparatively strong in many respects. But when it comes to nonmarital childbearing, Latinos are vulnerable. Today more than 50 percent of Latino children are born out of wedlock, well above the 29 percent figure for whites. We attribute this disparity in part to Latino economic disadvantage, which tends to make young women of any racial/ethnic group more likely to welcome the birth of a child and less likely to marry in the wake of a nonmarital pregnancy. Our data analysis shows that socioeconomic factors account for a substantial portion of the Latino–white divide in nonmarital childbearing.
Cultural factors also appear to play a role. Nonmarital cohabitation, which in itself increases the risk of a nonmarital birth, is more common among Latinos than among whites, perhaps because of the long-standing Latin American tradition of “consensual unions.” Latinos are less likely than whites to use contraception consistently, and they more often embrace a pro-natalist mindset; 43 percent of unmarried Latinas say that they would be happy if they got pregnant, compared to 35 percent of black women and 27 percent of white women. Latinas are also less likely to have had an abortion than are their black or white peers. These distinctive beliefs and behaviors increase the odds of nonmarital childbearing among Latinos; indeed, cultural factors measured in Soul Mates account for a large proportion of the Latino–white divide in nonmarital childbearing. Another way to put it is this: Latinos are more likely to welcome children both inside and outside of marriage.
Despite facing severe economic headwinds, an enduring legacy of discrimination and xenophobia, and perhaps the challenges of adapting to a new nation, most African Americans and Latinos marry, enjoy happy relationships, and abide by a code of decency that increases the odds of enjoying a good family life. These triumphs are often facilitated by religious faith, which serves as an important source of personal, familial, and communal strength for many Latinos and, especially, many African Americans.
Latinos and African Americans are more likely to regularly attend church than are whites, and faith is more salient for blacks than it is for whites or Latinos. Seventy percent of African Americans aged 18 to 55 consider themselves moderately or very religious, compared to 61 percent of Latinos and 52 percent of whites. When it comes to attending church, 36 percent of African Americans aged 18 to 55 go regularly (several times a month or more), compared to 29 percent of Latinos and 24 percent of whites. And regular churchgoing is associated with numerous benefits for both blacks and Latinos: employment, relationship quality, temperance, and law-abiding behavior. After controlling for a range of socio-demographic factors, church attendance produces an 8-percentage-point reduction in idleness (being out of work and school) for black men, a 9-point reduction for Latino men, and a 6-point reduction for white men. Statistics like these underscore our contention that religion is a force for decent behavior, and thus happier and more stable families, among all kinds of Americans.
W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Nicholas H. Wolfinger is Professor of Family and Consumer Studies and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of Utah. This piece was adapted from their new book Soul Mates, out today from Oxford University Press.