When you think about people who have achieved middle class status (or higher), maybe what you envision are married people with children. Numerically, though, marriage has been waning for decades. Just about every new Census report shows that proportionately fewer adults are married, compared to the year before.
The decline in marriage has been steeper for Blacks than for other racial groups. That has led to some hand-wringing about the status of the middle class. If rates of marriage are dwindling, does that mean the Black middle class is shrinking, too?
Sociologist Kris Marsh and her colleagues thought that scholars and pundits were missing something by focusing so intently on married couples. Maybe, they suggested, one route into the middle class (and beyond) was to stay single and live alone. It was, in a way, a radical idea, particularly when considered in light of the insistence by “marriage fundamentalists” that getting married is perhaps the most important way to escape poverty. (Take a look at the April 2019 report by the Family Story think tank, “The case against marriage fundamentalism: Embracing family justice for all.”)
To determine who qualified as middle class or above, Professor Marsh and her team of social scientists created a rigorous set of four criteria. A household had to meet all four in other to be categorized as middle class:
- 4+ years of college completed
- Home ownership (this is a measure of wealth, as opposed to just income)
- Per person income that is above the median for all Black households
- An occupational prestige score that is above the median for the highest-ranking individuals in all Black households
The researchers were interested in people in their prime working years and the peak years for marriage, so they analyzed people who were between the ages of 25 and 54, or the even younger subset of those between 25 and 44 years old.
The Black middle-class is growing, not shrinking
Using the very stringent criteria for qualifying for the middle class, and including all households and not just households with couples or children, they found that, despite the decrease in rates of marriage, the percentages of Blacks who are middle class has been increasing. For those between the ages of 25 and 54, only 6% of households qualified as middle class in 1980. By 1990, the number increased to 9%, and then to 10% in 2000. (The percentages were very similar — 6, 8, and 9 — for the younger group of 25-44 year-olds.)
Single people living alone are part of the Black middle-class, and their numbers are growing
Who are the people comprising the Black middle class and has that been changing over time? Out of all middle-class Black households, what proportion are married and what proportion are single and living alone (SALA)? The authors looked at 7 different kinds of households. Here, I will describe the results for the four most common households.
In the year 2000, close to half (48%) of all Black middle-class households (ages 25-44) were comprised of married couples with children. That percent, though, was way down from 65% in 1980 and 58% in 1990.
Overall, across all social classes, there are fewer Black households comprised of never-married people living alone than married-with-children households. But among those who have made it into the middle class and beyond, the percentage of SALAs (single and living alone) has increased over time. In 1980, 5.8% of all Black middle-class households were comprised of lifelong single people living alone. By 1990, that had increased to 9.1%. By 2000, it was all the way up to 14.3%. That means that single people living alone accounted for about 1 out of every 7 middle-class Black households in the year 2000.
For the other two most common types of middle-class Black households, the percentages did not change much over time. In 1980, 1990, and 2000, the formerly married accounted for either 13 or 14% of all middle-class households. Households comprised of married couples without children accounted for 12% of all middle-class Black households at each time period.
Single and living alone: It’s not just a phase
The authors also found that the rise of SALAs into the middle class was not just a youthful phase that people left behind as they got older. The study was not a longitudinal one, so the researchers could not follow the exact same people over the course of their adult lives. But they were able to get an answer to the question in a different way. They looked at people born around 1950, when they were 30 years old (1980), 40 years old (1990), and 50 years old (2000). If staying single and living alone was a ticket to the middle class only among the young, then the percentage of all middle-class households comprised of SALAs would decrease. But it hardly budged. Among the 30-year-olds, 8.4% of middle-class households were SALA. Among 40-year-olds, it was 7.5%, and among 50-year-olds, it was 7.6%. The pattern was similar for people born around 1960, though the overall percentage of SALAs in the middle-class was even higher.
SALA success is more likely for women than men
Finally, Professor Marsh and her colleagues asked whether the odds of entering the middle class by staying single and living alone were any greater for men than for women. It was the women who were more likely to achieve middle-class status as SALAs.
The emerging Black middle class has a new face: lifelong single people – especially single women – who live alone. Their numbers have been growing as a percentage of all households, and more importantly, as a percentage of all middle-class households. The marriage fundamentalists will not like the authors’ conclusion:
“A possible implication of this shift is that if black women are achieving middle-class status without marrying, marriage may not, contrary to what has been previously believed, provide much financial benefit or produce positive returns for professional black women in this age group.”
Marsh, K., Darity, W. A. Jr., Cohen, P. N., Casper, L. M., & Salters, D. (2007). The emerging black middle class: Single and living alone. Social Forces, 86, 735-762.