African American Marital Disruption in the 20th Century: What Changed? What Did Not?

Andrew Clarkwest, University of Michigan

In this paper I analyze trends in and causes of evolving racial differences in divorce and separation during the 20th century. Using Census data on current marital status and past remarriage I produce estimates of race-specific trends in the prevalence of marital disruption. I find that Black/non-Black differences in marital disruption widened over the first half of the century, but, contrary to the findings of past work that relied on current marital status as an outcome, I find that the gap narrowed by roughly one-third over the three decades after 1950. I then examine what has caused the changes in the disruption gap. In doing so, I consider both the impact of changing inter-group differences in marital disruption risk factors and the fact that the effects of risk factors are historically contingent, so persisting differences in those factors may alter the disruption gap, even if they themselves do not change.

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Presented in Session 59: Family Patterns in Historical Perspective