Marriage, Then Mortgage
Much of the racial gap in homeownership is tied to rates of family formation.
Before the Federal Reserve began hiking interest rates in early 2022, homeownership was surging, peaking at 67 percent of households after the buying frenzy that began during the Covid lockdowns in mid-2020. That marked a real gain over the course of a decade in the U.S., where rates had plunged after the 2008 housing bust. But one racial group, blacks, lagged. After cresting at nearly 50 percent of households before 2008, black ownership is now about 44 percent, substantially behind other groups. The gap between blacks and other groups has widened in recent years.
The news has sparked new efforts by housing advocates and government regulators to revive and expand now-familiar programs to boost black homeownership, including special funds aimed at subsidizing down payments for low-income buyers, new financing for building affordable housing, and anti-gentrification programs to trim housing-price increases in minority markets. The campaigns have also included stepped-up efforts by regulators to stem what some advocates claim is the redlining of black neighborhoods by mortgage lenders.
Yet the gap between white and black homeownership was smaller in 1960, before the passage of antidiscrimination laws like the Fair Housing Act and the Community Reinvestment Act and before extensive efforts by regulators to intervene in housing markets to fight discrimination. Though housing advocates argue that housing somehow remains rife with “implicit,” or buried, racism, it’s hard to believe that obstacles to buying a home are greater today than during an era when Jim Crow laws were still on the books in some places and open discrimination in housing was common.
The countervailing argument—advanced for years by economist Thomas Sowell, the late UC–Berkeley professor John C. Ogbu, and the Manhattan Institute’s Jason Riley—is that differences in group behavior account for much of the divergence in economic outcomes for ethnic or racial groups. Sowell and Riley have argued that government interventions starting in the 1960s proved counterproductive to minority advancement, supplanting personal responsibility and individual initiative with the idea that state aid is what matters.
One issue that Sowell has focused on—the steep decline in marriage and family formation among blacks—seems especially relevant to the latest homeownership data. Though marriage rates have slowly declined in America, marriage as a factor in homeownership remains enormously significant. Among married couples, the overall homeownership rate is consistently around 80 percent. Married households are more likely to have two wage earners and consequently find it easier in general to get credit. Married couples are also more likely to follow what City Journal’s Kay Hymowitz describes as a life “script,” which includes an expectation that homeownership will follow marriage. That’s partially why homeownership among married couples is strong across all races, including African-Americans. For blacks, the married homeownership rate has hovered recently around 64 percent, not so far from the rates for other groups.
The problem, however, is that married adults are fewer and fewer in number. And while the overall rate of nuptials is falling, it has dropped faster and is significantly lower for blacks. Today, fewer than one-third of black adults have spouses, compared with about 55 percent of the general population. Asian-Americans, by contrast, top the category, with 61 percent of adults married. That vast difference alone, given the markedly higher rates of ownership among married couples, accounts for a significant part of the overall racial gap in homeownership. Nor is it hard to grasp the success of black married couples in the housing market when you consider that the poverty rate among black married families is currently just 7.2 percent—well below the 19 percent rate for all blacks.
Many social scientists today argue that blacks’ lower marriage rate and a corresponding decline in the two-parent family are a legacy of slavery and of widespread poverty during the Jim Crow era. But as Sowell notes in Black Rednecks and White Liberals, marriage rates for blacks were higher than for whites in every U.S. Census from 1890 to 1940—a period of overt racism and segregation laws. Even in 1960, the marriage rate for black adults was 61 percent—nearly double today’s rate—and two-thirds of black kids lived in two-parent households.
Not long ago, the importance of marriage and family to basic economic advancement was a legitimate part of policy discussion, even on the political left. In 2008, then–presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered a Father’s Day speech in a Chicago church emphasizing the link between the family and economic success: “Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important,” he said. “Yes, we need more jobs and more job training and more opportunity in our communities. But we also need families to raise our children.”
Gradually, however, this emphasis has disappeared, replaced by policies centering almost entirely on financial incentives and government subsidies. A study on marriage and homeownership published in Social Science Review by researchers at the University of North Carolina found that policy initiatives for low-income buyers increasingly deploy strategies like tax incentives and removing barriers to borrowing. However, the study also found that low-income married couples were two to three times more likely to buy homes than unmarried individuals and did so far sooner in life—leading the authors to endorse efforts to embrace marriage among low-income people as a route to homeownership and economic mobility.
Government efforts to promote marriage, which accompanied the welfare reform of the 1990s, have been sporadic and ineffective—partly because, though programs exist that incentivize marriage, such as tax and benefit advantages for couples, other public initiatives like social aid discourage it. And it is naive to believe that government itself might so successfully reengineer a society where much of the discussion about married life has turned neutral, if not negative. That shift results from more than 150 years of left-leaning political and academic voices working to undermine marriage and family life. “The picture of marriage and family life as a burden,” Sowell has written, “is common among the intelligentsia of the left.” Why? “Partly it is because marriage is a fundamental component of a social order that the left opposes. . . . Marriage and family are also barriers to the left’s desire to create a society built to their own specifications.”
The larger issue is that any focus on individual and group behavior as a cause of economic and social shortcomings has disappeared from policy discussions and from mainstream media reports. Government and advocacy groups hence keep putting money and time into programs—like the latest round of spending to bolster homeownership—that have failed before, and will keep failing, because they ignore the deepest problems. More ominously, the relentless message of these efforts is that the fault lies with a racist American society. Facts to the contrary, like the substantial success of the black married family, get swept aside.
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