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Abstract

Family structure is a dominant explanation for racial inequality in poverty in the U.S., but this overemphasis has come at the cost of acknowledging the role of structural factors. Identifying how institutional mechanisms interact with family structure is key to understanding how different family types are linked to greater likelihoods of living in poverty. In this study, we assess the extent to which an indicator of structural racism—the legacy of slavery—modifies the link between family structure and Black-White inequality in poverty. We use data from the Luxembourg Income Study, the American Community Survey, and the Historical 1860 Census and employ multilevel analyses linking individual- and state-level data and a separate county-level analysis. Bi-variate analyses and regression models assess how a proxy of legacy of slavery—historical concentration of enslaved population in 1860—impacts Black-White inequality in poverty by family structure in the U.S. South. Results indicate the legacy of slavery increases the likelihood of poverty among married couple families, but only for Black households. It does not have the same racially-stratified impact on poverty among single mother households. Our findings suggest the link between family structure and poverty is overstated and more indirect. Local manifestations of structural racism are part of how family structure matters for poverty and inequality. This study adds to the evidence of a contemporary legacy of slavery. It also challenges the perceived benefit of marriage as an anti-poverty mechanism that works equally well across contexts, underscoring the limitations of family structure in explaining racial inequality.