Half of black Nebraskans have never been married, compared with 29 percent among the state’s total population. This reflects a larger national trend: a growing segment of the black middle class is single and living alone. Dr. Kris Marsh, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, will be speaking about the economic, racial, and political implications of unmarried singles in the black middle class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on Monday, April 8th. Marsh spoke to Ariana Brocious of NET News, and suggests we may need to rethink the definition of the black middle class.
KRIS MARSH: When we think of middle class, not even black middle class or white middle class, just the overall middle class, the general picture of middle class is a husband, a wife, 2.5 children, a dog and a white picket fence. From a demographic perspective, we know that marriage rates have changed across the board. Marriage rates have changed a lot among blacks, with more pronounced declining marriage rates in black America, there’s this hidden assumption in social science literature that the black middle class is shrinking. And I’m trying to make the argument that no, the black middle class isn’t shrinking, there’s just a compositional shift in the black middle class away from married couples to young, black professionals who aren’t married and don’t have any children. And I think that we can no longer just think of the black middle class as just a husband and a wife, but we have to think outside of the box and think about it in ways that now consist of single and living alone households.
NET NEWS: As you said, across the country, couples are deciding to marry and have kids later in life. According to U.S. Census data, 51 percent of black Nebraskans 15 years and older have never been married, compared with 29 percent among the state's total populaton. Do those statistics reflect the larger national picture?
MARSH: Yes. There’s a growing segment of black America who have never been married, and there’s also a suggestion that they will never marry. Overall, the national trend is that people could be marrying later in life. But for black America, yes, people are marrying later in life, but there’s also a group that will not marry at all. And because this group exists, we can no longer ignore them and put them in another category. We have people that are not going to get married and they’re not going to have children but they’re important and we can’t overlook them.
NET NEWS: And what are some of the reasons people might decide to do that, especially looking at this particular group?
MARSH: The question is whether or not it’s by choice or force. In black America, are people choosing not to marry because they think that things are okay or for whatever reason they made this conscious choice, or could it be that there aren’t viable options? So they’re forced to stay single and never marry because they just don’t have viable options.
NET NEWS: Blacks made up about 5 percent of Nebraska’s total population. What might this new demographic group mean for black culture here in Nebraska and larger American culture over time?
MARSH: Now that you have this single and living alone household who are middle class, it becomes a really interesting discussion. And I want to move the discussion into a different direction to say, okay, we clearly know that demographically, this group exists. What are some of the consequences of this group?
One consequence is that we need to start rethinking the way in which we need to define a family. And this is for all households, not just black households. Are there some advantages that families get, political advantages, health care advantages, for example, that families get, that people that aren’t in a family wouldn’t receive? And if that were the case, and we have a growing number of those that are single and living alone, do we want to redefine what we mean by a family? Can one person make up a family? Are there advantages to be labeled as a family or one person household? I think we really need to start thinking about the terminology, especially because we know this is a growing group of people who are single and living alone.
The other issue that I’m interested in understanding is that if we know for the most part that class status is transferred from parent to child, and you have people in this black middle class who are single and living alone who do not have children, to whom are they going to transfer their wealth? I think in black America we have to start considering innovative ways in which we’re going to transfer our wealth from one generation to the next. It wouldn’t go parent to child. But could it go from aunt to nephew? From friend to godchild? We have to start thinking about it in very interesting ways.
And the third issue is that if the second largest household type in the black middle class is being single and living alone, just behind married couples, that’s not the same composition we see in the white middle class. So, because of these different kinds of household types, do we see racial inequality existing because you don’t have as many married couples in the black middle class as you do in the white middle class? So does it reinforce racial inequality in some kind of way? I think those are the kind of questions we need to start thinking about with these compositional shifts of household type.
NET NEWS:Do you think public policy supports these unmarried, living alone singles? If not, how should they be changed to do so?
MARSH: It’s an emerging group, it’s been around but it’s definitely not going anywhere. So I don’t think the public policies really think about this group as a family. I’m not trying to put a value judgment on what constitutes a family. All I’m trying to do is to get people to think outside the box and say, if there are advantages to being labeled as a family and we know that there are a lot of households that are single and living alone, should they also be classified as a family? And that’s something I think policy analysts really need to start thinking about.
Dr. Kris Marsh will be speaking at Burnett Hall at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on Monday, April 8, 2013, from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. Central. The event is co-sponsored by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Arts and Sciences through the Thomas C. Sorensen Endowment, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Sociology, and the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center. It is free and open to the public.