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Marriage Rates Are Falling, And For Some Faster Than Others

The biggest takeaways from a new study on marriage by the Pew Research Center are these: Fewer Americans who are older than 25 are married than ever before, and by the time they're middle-aged, a record 25 percent will have never tied the knot.

That might not be too much of a surprise, since marriage rates have been sliding for decades.

But what's just as interesting is how those numbers break down. More than a third of black people older than 25 have never jumped the broom — a number that's four times higher than it was in 1960. This trend has been generally true for whites and Latinos too, albeit less dramatically: The nonmarried rate for whites and Latinos has doubled since 1960. Sixteen percent of whites and more than a quarter of Latinos over 25 have not married. The number of nonmarried Asian-Americans over 25 was around 13 percent in 1980; today, it's roughly a fifth of all Asian folks. (It's important to note that 1960 was the high-water mark for American marriages.)

Men were less likely than women to have never tied the knot, and the less educated those men were, the less likely they were to marry. That wasn't true for women: Women of all education levels were about as likely to not be married.

But just because folks aren't getting married doesn't mean they don't want to. About half of all the never-marrieds said they would like to eventually; and the younger people were, the more likely they were to say this. Black folks are less likely to be married, but are more likely to say that couples who plan to spend their lives together should do so.

Pew said the trend line could be explained in a few ways. People are waiting longer to get married. More unmarried partners are living together, and more unmarried people are raising children. Then there are the economic factors. There are fewer employed black men and white men than in 1960, and Pew said that there are 51 employed, never-married young black men between the ages of 25 to 34 for every 100 black women in the same boat. It's possible that there just aren't enough marriageable partners — younger people in general were more likely to tell Pew that financial stability was the main reason they weren't married, and blacks and Latinos were significantly more likely than whites to "place a high priority on a spouse or partner with a steady job."

This last bit puts us in the mind of Katherine Boo's towering 2004 featurefrom the New Yorker, "The Marriage Cure." Boo followed two African-American women who lived in a housing project in Oklahoma City. Both women were enrolled in a program based on the premise that marriage helps people create wealth and thus might help poorer people climb out of poverty.

But the women's lives suggested that the truth was more complicated. The men who were available to them were often unemployed, and because of their criminal histories, unemployable. For these women of modest means, it seemed that finding a partner meant looking for someone who wasn't an economic drag on them, which was a tall order. In other words, instead of poor folks being poor because they're not married — they might not be married because they're poor.

Another interesting wrinkle: While the Pew data show that the rate of nonmarried Latinos has doubled over the past 50 years and the rate of unmarried, cohabitating parents has climbed, another new study from Child Trends found that nearly 60 percent of Latino children were being raised by two married parents. Latino kids were also more likely than blacks or whites to eat a meal with their families six or seven days a week, and those meals were likely to be cooked at home.

Put another way: When we reference the traditional, married, two-parent American family that eats home-cooked meals together in our popular culture, maybe we should start showing them as Latinos.

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Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.