Should We Be Worried about the Declining Black Marital Birth Rate?

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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It is difficult to understand the current changes in the black family because many different things are happening at the same time. Many people know that the percent of black births that are out-of-wedlock is very high, but few people know that there are three different reasons why this is the case.

Most people probably know this one: there is a large number of black single parent families. But one rarely hears discussions about the other two: the low black marital birth rate and the high rate of black adults who are single and without children. If married black women had babies at the rate they did in the past and single black adults married and also had babies, the percent of black births that are out-of-wedlock would drop significantly because there would be many more in-wedlock births.

It is important to realize that the “percent of births” is not a birth rate. The birth rate is the number of births for every 1,000 women in a specific category. The last marital birth rates calculated by the National Center for Health Statistics were for 2002. In 2002, the black marital birth rate was 64.9 births for every 1,000 married black women. The white marital birth rate was 88.2 for every 1,000 married white women. The black marital birth rate was 23.3 births less that the white rate. In the past, the black marital birth rate used to be higher than the white rate. Because there is such a low number of births among married black women, the percent of births to unmarried black women is especially high.

The percent of women ages 18 to 44 who were not married and have no children is higher for blacks than for whites. By my calculations from the American Community Survey, in 2006, 32.8 percent of white women in this age range were single without children. There were 6 percent more black women in this category, 38.8 percent. As recently as 1990, only 29.3 percent of black women in this age group were unmarried and without children. Last year, scholars at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported that these single adults living alone were making up a larger share of the black middle class.

The changes in black family structure are far more complicated than most people realize. Few people know that there are three separate factors producing the high percent of births that are out-of-wedlock among blacks. Is the low birth rate for married black women a good thing or a bad thing? Should we be concerned about the increase in single black adults without children? We haven’t asked these questions because there has been more hasty assumptions than serious data analysis about black families.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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