D.C. Marriage Rate Lowest in U.S.

wedding-rings Tyler Cowen points me to an interesting discussion on the subject “Why So Few D.C. Residents Are Married.”

Washington City Paper‘s Amanda Hess cites a Pew survey finding that “Only 23 percent of women and 28 percent of men and in D.C. are married, compared to 48 and 52 percent nationwide. The rates in D.C. are so low that they lie entirely off the Pew map’s color key. The closest states to D.C.’s numbers are Rhode Island, where 43 percent of women are married, and Alaska, where 47 percent of men are married.”

While Pew’s D’Vera Cohn attributes this to D.C. residents getting married later than those in any state,  Hess argues that an overlooked factor is that D.C. has the nation’s highest concentration of homosexuals, who are not permitted to marry.

Newsweek blogger Katie Connolly retorts that “Both those explanations are plausible, but they give the data short shrift.”  Instead, she thinks the answer lies in the “nature of race and class in D.C.”

Anyone who’s lived in D.C. is aware of the city’s dirty secret: it essentially operates under an unwritten form of apartheid. In general, affluent, college-educated white folks with decent, steady incomes are clustered in the northwest quadrant. Their needs are serviced by a massive underclass, consisting largely of underprivileged immigrants, African-Americans, and Hispanics, that inhabits the remaining three quarters. Visitors to the city rarely glimpse this side of the city because there’s little reason to venture beyond the fancy hotels, restaurants, and attractions.

[…]

But only around a third of D.C.’s population is white. African-Americans make up 56 percent of the population, and marriage rates among African-Americans have been steadily dropping since the 1960s. The last census found that just 36 percent of African American women were married, down from 62 percent in 1950. Marriage rates for white women also declined over the same period, but only from 66 percent to 57 percent. A large proportion of D.C.’s African-American community is low income or underemployed, both of which are often indicators of low marriage or high divorce rates.

All those explanations strike me as contributors to the puzzle.  All of them, though, miss one crucial issue:  Suburbanization.

The vast majority of those of us who work in the District actually live in Virginia or Maryland.  Some even commute from as far away as West Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Delaware.   Those of us who are married — and especially those of us with children — are much more likely to be in that category.

If you’re young, single, and affluent, D.C. proper — or at least, a handful of gentrified neighborhoods therein — is a great place to live.  It’s not Manhattan but there’s a decent nightlife, a plethora of restaurants, and plenty of things to do.  But unless you’re very well off financially, you’ve either got a roommate, live in an incredibly small space, or both.  And there’s essentially no such thing as a single family home in the District.  (Note for non-urbanites:  A “single family home” is  a “house.”  In places like D.C., even wealthy people tend to live in condos or townhouses.) Let alone a yard.

Oh, and unless you can afford to send your kids to Sidwell Friends, the schools are simply awful.

UPDATE:   Commenter Ugh observes, “I think the problem here is treating the District of Columbia as a state, and then comparing it to real states, each of which is infinitely more rural than the District (even Rhode Island). A more proper comparison would be to the marriage rate in Baltimore proper, or San Francisco, or Oakland, or Manhattan, etc.”

Yes, that’s exactly right. The Pew piece footnotes that point and Connolly uses it as a throwaway line but it’s really important.  Indeed, it’s really another way of making my point about suburbanization:  The same is more or less true in most of our major urban centers but, since the unit of analysis for the other 50 entities is a whole state, the impact is different.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. floyd says:

    One factor not mentioned is the correlation between the advent of of the welfare state and the decline in marriage.
    Welfare has been pushing father’s out of the picture for decades , in favor of support from Uncle Sam.
    How do the welfare numbers coincide with the marriage figures in DC?

  2. billindc says:

    Tsk, tsk, tsk….you haven’t done your research Mr. Joyner. Schools in DC are getting better and the charter schools are often quite good. Also, ‘gentrified’ DC isn’t just a handful of neighborhoods…rather than a quadrant of NW, gentrification is almost all the way to N. Capitol Street these days. Add in that the same process has spread out from the Capitol Hill almost to old RFK stadium and the reality is that gentrification is becoming the norm rather than the exception in DC.

    As to the ‘massive underclass’ comment…Mumbai has a massive underclass. Cairo has a massive underclass. Washington DC has it’s fair share of poor folks but doesn’t compare with Detroit or even Baltimore in the underclass stakes. One reason is that the Federal and DC governments are fertile ground for exactly the kinds of jobs that lead to the middle class. Another is that the black community in DC has enjoyed a long pedigree and a high level of education centered around Howard University.

    Finally, DC suffers under a system of apartheid? That’s so flat out overheated and ridiculous I don’t know where to begin. Unfortunately, it’s typical of the people I know who blow through town for a couple of years and/or never leave the Georgetown/7th Street/Adam’s Morgan axis for fear of getting assaulted by the…well, you know…lower classes.

  3. Triumph says:

    Aside from the fact that the District’s underclass doesn’t marry, the bulk of the professional class that live in the district are gay–take a stroll around DuPont Circle [aka the Fruit Loop] if you don’t believe me.

  4. billindc says:

    The bulk of the professional class is gay? I’d love to see the data to support that…

  5. Ugh says:

    I think the problem here is treating the District of Columbia as a state, and then comparing it to real states, each of which is infinitely more rural than the District (even Rhode Island). A more proper comparison would be to the marriage rate in Baltimore proper, or San Francisco, or Oakland, or Manhattan, etc.

  6. Triumph says:

    The bulk of the professional class is gay? I’d love to see the data to support that…

    Let’s put it this way–of all the cities in the country the District has the second highest percentage of gay households.

    As J-Dawg said, real married people leave DC within hours of they wedding since it isn’t a place where you would want to raise kids.

    Since gays don’t have kids, they stick around.

    But, seriously, if you don’t believe me just sit on one of the benches in the park at DuPont Circle near the chess boards and you’ll figure it out pretty quickly.

    Larry Craig and Mark Foley both used to hang out there quite a bit, it has been reported.

  7. billindc says:

    Actually, I’m a married straight guy who lives near Dupont and is in the circle about 5 times a week. You are 10 years out of date to describe Dupont Circle as a gay mecca.

    I also will be raising my kids in DC…just like the many married couples I know in the last 10 years who haven’t left. You need to get away from the tourist highlights and go to neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, Mount Pleasant and Crestwood. There are families of all stripes there that escape your attention.

    And btw…in my professional experience maybe 15% of the folks I meet in business happen to be gay.

    Finally, it’s insulting to normal gay people to fling out Larry Craig and Mark Foley as somehow representative of them.

  8. “Anyone who’s lived in D.C. is aware of the city’s dirty secret: it essentially operates under an unwritten form of apartheid.” – This comment is pretty ridiculous. For one thing, If had to be poor or homeless D.C. would be my first choice. Have you been to Detroit or some of the North African ghettos in Paris? No comparison. Also, a half century ago those same jobs being filled by Somali’s etc today were being filled by other immigrant communities who have since moved up that ladder. Sometimes coming to this country isn’t about getting rich quick, its about providing a better future for your family.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Schools in DC are getting better and the charter schools are often quite good.

    Michelle Ries is doing a good job but DC is still a long way from being McLean or Alexandria.

    Finally, DC suffers under a system of apartheid? That’s so flat out overheated and ridiculous I don’t know where to begin.

    It’s hyperbolic, at least. It’s true that most of the affluent part of DC is Northwest and that there’s not much social mingling between those people on those who live in, say, Anacostia. But that’s true everywhere.

  10. Ugh says:

    Hey a comment got front paged, woo-hoo!

    I do have to note that there are plenty single family homes with yards in the District, especially in NW (I live in one), but if you’re commuting from Virginia and never go farther North in the District than DuPont I can see how you may think otherwise.

  11. Moonage says:

    Being a former resident of DC, I think a very important distinction has also been missed in that a LOT of people working in DC are commuting from far distances. As such, it appeals to a younger, un-attached grouple of people. When you get a real job, it’s usually in the burbs outside of DC.

  12. James Joyner says:

    I do have to note that there are plenty single family homes with yards in the District, especially in NW (I live in one), but if you’re commuting from Virginia and never go farther North in the District than DuPont I can see how you may think otherwise.

    There are certainly parts of DC, even Northwest, where traffic pretty much ensures I never or seldom travel. There are regular houses in places like Cleveland Park, where my boss lives, but it takes so long to get downtown from there that you might as well live in Virginia and save on the mortgage and taxes.

  13. Ugh says:

    How long is your commute in from Alexandria?

  14. James Joyner says:

    How long is your commute in from Alexandria?

    I’m way out by Mount Vernon, so anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour depending, with 45 minutes the norm. And 20 minutes or more of that is traveling 15 blocks south to exit DC.

    It takes for fricking ever to travel westbound in DC along the M St/Mass Ave corridor, though. Going out to Embassy Row can be a real treat.

  15. Ugh says:

    Ah, going south in the evening commute is way different than going north, AFAICT, pesky Potomac river. And westbound is bad too, as you say. I commute north on 15th st. in the evening and Mass Ave traffic blocks the box at the 15/mass intersection a couple times a week (in both directions). Still, my commute is rarely longer than 30 min to NW each way, but ~6 miles in 30 minutes is nothing to brag about.

  16. billindc says:

    It always amazes me when I read about the brutal commute people endure when you can live in Mt. Pleasant next to the Zoo for a similar amount of money and have a 15 minute drive (or 10 minute bike ride) home at the end of the day.

  17. James Joyner says:

    It always amazes me when I read about the brutal commute people endure when you can live in Mt. Pleasant next to the Zoo for a similar amount of money and have a 15 minute drive (or 10 minute bike ride) home at the end of the day.

    I can’t get from downtown to the zoo in 15 minutes, unless I’m traveling at midnight.

    And we bought our current house when I was working from home and my wife was working in Old Town, 15 minutes away. She’s still there but I now have a commute. Not worth it to sell and move.

  18. billindc says:

    You need to get off of Connecticut Avenue, buddy.

  19. James Joyner says:

    You need to get off of Connecticut Avenue, buddy.

    I’m seldom on Connecticut, since it’s a diagonal, except for the couple blocks where it substitutes for M. I find any of the E-W thoroughfares incredibly slow. K, L, M, Mass. Is there some secret road I’m missing that moves with some reasonable speed?

  20. billindc says:

    Exactly where are you trying to get to and from?

  21. James Joyner says:

    Exactly where are you trying to get to and from?

    I’ve never tried to get to the zoo from downtown but just generally driving west from downtown (15th and L) during the evenings a bear. Usually, I’m headed to some event in Georgetown or thereabouts.

  22. billindc says:

    Ah, not much that can be done to help you there.