The District of Columbia has the lowest marriage rate in the country. 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.
Hess offers two main explanations: that D.C. residents marry at an older age, and that, with gay marriage illegal in the District, the high proportion of LGBT residents (around 8.2 percent) skews the stats. Both those explanations are plausible, but they give the data short shrift. For starters, D.C. is a city not a state, so comparing demographics with states is always a dubious enterprise (a fact the Pew researchers note in their backgrounder.) But the study is more deeply revealing about 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 that the wealthy northwest rarely engages with the swathe of low income people who share their city.* 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.
Residents of D.C.'s northwest predominantly fit the class profile of those who wed later than average. Pew notes that populations with high rates of college education tend to wed later in life. Professional women also tend to be older when they wed. D.C. is virtually a one-industry town. Government and related industries employ almost all the white-collar workers, and that tends to attract lefty, progressive types who have a demonstrated proclivity to marry later in life. Indeed, Pew found a correlation between states with a high proportion of Democratic voters and populations with a higher average wedding age. D.C. is overwhelmingly Democratic. Barack Obama received a whopping 92 percent of the vote last year; John Kerry received 89 percent in 2004; and Al Gore grabbed 85 percent of the vote.
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.
Lastly, even though D.C. is home to world-class universities, think tanks, and thought leaders, a shockingly high 37 percent of its population is functionally illiterate. That's around 15 percentage points higher than the national average. It goes without saying that literacy rates and poverty are strongly correlated. There's also much scholarship highlighting the declining rates of marriage in poor communities. Harvard's Kathy Edin, for example, has produced fascinating work on the tendency of poor women to put motherhood before marriage.
Hess is right to point out that if D.C.'s large gay population were entitled to marry the rate would likely rise. But failing to mention the thornier challenge of alleviating poverty and illiteracy, particularly in D.C.'s African-American community, means again marginalizing the concerns of the already underrepresented.
*It seems I've aggravated a lot of people with my reference to apartheid. I agree it was a poor choice of words, which unfairly exaggerated the social and class issues we have in DC. I've reworded that sentence to more accurately reflect my intention, which was to highlight the fact that there are two distinct class worlds in DC: an affluent group that clusters in the north west and a much poorer community whose work helps enable the higher living standards of the richer residents. It's also a reality that, like in many urban areas, a majority of those who live in DC's poorer areas aren't white. Those areas have worse schools and less access to services. In my mind, the contrast is stark and unjust, and in order to remedy this unfairness, DC residents should be conscious and open about the class politics surrounding them. But I admit that's a very different situation than in South Africa, and the analogy was a bad one.