Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. How Do Teens’ Attitudes Vary by Race and Ethnicity?

10/01/2008

Racial and ethnic differences in teens’ attitudes toward marriage are generally smaller than gender differences. They are also smaller than one might expect from the large racial/ethnic differences in family structure described earlier in Chapter II. In this section, we use data from both the 2002 NSFG and the MTF study to compare teens’ attitudes toward marriage among whites, African Americans, and Hispanics.

  • Most high-school-aged teens express positive attitudes toward marriage, regardless of their racial and ethnic background.

In general, teens’ attitudes toward marriage do not vary much by race/ethnicity. For example, in the 2005 and 2006 waves of the MTF study, the percentage of high school seniors who said that having a good marriage and family life was either “quite important” or “extremely important” to them was only slightly lower for African Americans than for Hispanics, and it was similar for both whites and Hispanics (Figure III.7). Similarly, data from the 2002 NSFG indicate that a majority of teens from all three racial and ethnic groups agree that it is better for a person to get married than to go through life being single. The percentage of students who feel well prepared for marriage is also similar for all racial and ethnic groups. In the 2005 and 2006 waves of the MTF study, 74 percent of Hispanic students said they felt well or very well prepared for marriage, compared with 73 percent for whites and 72 percent for African Americans.


Figure III.7
Teens’ Attitudes Toward Marriage, by Race/Ethnicity

Figure III.7 Teens' Attitudes Toward Marriage, by Race/Ethnicity. See text for explanation of chart.

Source: Data on whether it is better to get married than to stay single from 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). Other data from 2005-2006 Monitoring the Future (MTF) surveys. (NSFG). Other data from 2005-2006 Monitoring the Future (MTF) surveys.

Note: NSFG data cover all 15-18 year olds. MTF data cover high school seniors only.

* Statistically different from the percentage for other racial/ethnic groups at the .05 significance level.


  • Hispanic and African American teens are less likely than white teens to expect to get and stay married.

Although teens from different racial/ethnic groups share similar attitudes toward marriage, they have different expectations of their likelihood of marriage. In particular, among high school students, Hispanic and African American teens are less likely than teenage whites to expect to get married. In the 2005 and 2006 waves of the MTF study, 86 percent of white high school seniors said they expect to get married one day, compared with 76 percent for Hispanics and 75 percent for African Americans (Figure III.8). Among those students who expect to get married, Hispanics and African Americans were also less likely than whites to say they expect to stay married to the same person for life (92 percent for whites, versus 84 percent for Hispanics and 85 percent for African Americans). These estimates of marital expectations by race/ethnicity are consistent with those reported in other national data sets (Crissey 2005).


Figure III.8
High School Seniors’ Expectations for Marriage, by Race/Ethnicity

Figure III.8 High School Seniors' Expectations for Marriage, by Race/Ethnicity. See text for explanation of chart.

Source: 2005-2006 Monitoring the Future (MTF) surveys.

a Limited to only those students who expect to get married.

* Statistically different from the percentage for other racial/ethnic groups at the .05 significance level.


Furthermore, among high school seniors, both Hispanics and African Americans are more likely than whites to want to delay marriage until later in life. In the 2005 and 2006 waves of the MTF study, 50 percent of Hispanic 12th graders and 59 percent of African American 12th graders said they wanted to delay marriage for at least five years after high school, compared with 45 percent for whites (Figure III.8).

These racial and ethnic differences in teens’ expectations for marriage are very similar to prevailing racial and ethnic differences in adult marriage rates. For example, recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that, among adults ages 35 to 39, the percentage of women who have ever been married is higher for whites (88 percent) than for African Americans (61 percent) or Hispanics (85 percent).(2) The percentage of men in their late 30s who have ever been married is also highest for whites (82 percent, versus 68 percent for African Americans and 77 percent for Hispanics). Whites tend to marry for the first time at a younger age and are less likely than African Americans to get divorced (Bramlett and Mosher 2002). Divorce rates are similar for whites and Hispanics. These findings suggest that teens’ expectations for marriage may be influenced in part by marriage patterns they observe among adults.

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