The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Spring
2012

Protection against Behavioral-Health Risks


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


The evidences continues to mount that African Americans, like all Americans, have more to gain from life-long marriage than from cohabitation, divorce, or the single life. The latest contribution to the literature comes from public-health researchers at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, researchers that discovered that African-American living in urban settings who are married are significantly less likely, compared to their unmarried peers, to engage in binge drinking, to smoke cigarettes, and to use illegal drugs. Moreover, the Maryland scholars suggest that their findings, which were controlled for marriage-selection effects, confirm that African Americans suffer poorer health than white Americans in part because of their lower marriage rates.

Kerry Green and her colleagues examined longitudinal data representing 546 women and 503 men who participated in the Woodlawn Study, an epidemiological study that tracked African Americans, from ages 6 to 42, living on the South Side of Chicago, beginning in the 1960s. After identifying six subgroups based upon marital status, the researchers conducted regression analyses to measure the likelihood of members of the respective subgroups, or marital “trajectories,” to engage in behavioral-health risks, including the leading cause (tobacco use) and third leading cause (alcohol consumption) of death in the United States.

Both men and women in the three unmarried subgroups were found to be distinctively likely to engage in the three risk behaviors at young adulthood (age 32) as well as at midlife (age 42). Likewise, men and women in the three married subgroups were distinctively unlikely to engage in risk behaviors.

Further analysis established that, compared to their peers that had remained continuously married, both African-American men and women that had married and divorced prior to age 32 faced the same odds of risky behavior in young adulthood as did their peers that had never married. (Five of the six odds ratios for women in both unmarried categories reached statistical significance; among men, three of the six reached statistical significance.) Similar patterns were replicated among both men and women who had married and divorced prior to age 42.

These findings may not be all that surprising, yet they lead the public-health experts to state the obvious: “The benefits of marriage only translate to those individuals who remain continuously married.” At the same time, the researchers—all of whom are women—lament that many African Americans are not benefiting from “marriage protection,” as only “a little more than a third” of their sample were married at midlife. Indeed, the Green team even sees promise in social policies, dating back to the George W. Bush era, that promote healthy and stable marriages while calling for a rethinking of other welfare policies “that may unintentionally discourage marriage among low-income populations.”

(Kerry M. Green et al., “Marriage Trajectories and Health Risk Behaviors Among Urban African Americans,” forthcoming inJournal of Family Issues.)

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