Communities, relationships influence marriage view for African-American young adults

Release Date: May 3, 2016

The childhood community context, that is, where children lived when they were 10 or 11 years old, is important when it comes to how these young people feel about marriage by the time they have turned 18 years old.
Ashley Barr, assistant professor of sociology
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – For African-Americans transitioning into adulthood, childhood communities and late-adolescent relationships play strong roles in shaping later views about the meaning and importance of marriage, much more so than family background, according to new research by a University at Buffalo sociologist.

The findings, published in the Journal of Family Issues, suggest that looking beyond the immediate context provides a better understanding for how the marital views of these young people form.

“We need to expand our scope to look further back in the life course,” says Ashley Barr, assistant professor in UB’s Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences and the study’s lead author.

“We tend to view marital beliefs as coming from the immediate context: the current community, existing opportunities to marry; or an existing relationship with a good partner,” says Ashley Barr. “But the childhood community context, that is, where children lived when they were 10 or 11 years old, is important when it comes to how these young people feel about marriage by the time they have turned 18 years old.”

It appears as if the marital meanings embedded in early community contexts can sour an otherwise good opportunity for marriage or make a troubled relationship appear marriage-worthy, according to Barr.

Many factors, including increased rates of non-marriage and rising age of first marriage in the U.S., have led scholars to question the relevance of marriage among young people and among young African-Americans, in particular.

With poverty rates trending lower in married families, the federal government in 1996 launched the Healthy Marriage Initiative. Today, the Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative is charged with improving the lives of children through relationship, responsible parenting and marriage education services.

But from a research standpoint, Barr says there was a discrepancy between the public discourse and some of the qualitative literature.

“There was a general sense in the literature that young African-Americans weren’t marrying because they didn’t value marriage,” she says. “Another subset of literature based on interviews found that marriage did seem to be important, but that opportunities to marry were limited: lack of resources; there were no eligible partners; or living situations that weren’t viable for long-lasting marriages.”

Barr says her research tries to understand what contributes to how young African-Americans feel about marriage.

The childhood community context and late-adolescent relationships are answers, but family background is not. Barr says the fairly weak evidence for the effect of family background is unusual.

“Usually we focus on the role of family,” she says. “We look at the parent’s relationship; were they divorced; were they nice to one another. In more general samples that is relevant, but it wasn’t among our more than 600 African-American respondents.”

Other studies have also found a more muted effect of family background on the family-related behaviors of African-Americans when compared to whites, according to Barr.

But at the same time, Barr found a great deal of diversity among the responses.

“I’m finding a lot of variation among these young people regarding the importance and perceived benefits of marriage,” she says. “The experiences within contexts of communities and relationships explains much of this variation.”

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