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Poor Marriages, Poor Health

By William Raspberry
Monday, October 24, 2005

Black women are sick of marriage.

Well, lots of them, anyway.

I've just looked at "The Consequences of Marriage for African Americans," a comprehensive review of the most recent literature (since about 1990) on the subject, and the conclusions are generally what you'd expect:

Marriage promotes the economic, social, familial and psychological well-being of black men and women -- as it does for men and women generally. Marriage is wonderful for children, who turn out to be less trouble-prone than their peers from single-parent-households.

The economic benefits of marriage are more pronounced for black couples than for whites, more often keeping their families from slipping below the poverty line.

But when it comes to physical health, marriage is worse than neutral for black women. Listen to the report, newly published by the New York-based Institute for American Values:

"Our research finds that marriage brings small health benefits to black men -- and none to black women. In fact, married black women are significantly less likely to report having excellent health than are unmarried black women."

Understand that the report is from people and organizations who could fairly be called a part of the "marriage movement." Many of those involved have long touted the benefits of marriage -- to men, women and children. The female health finding must have caught them by surprise.

Most of them, anyway. Linda Malone-Colon, one of the five scholars conducting the review, said she wasn't exactly blindsided by the finding.

"Overall, the study shows the smallest benefit to black women -- but it's still an important benefit," said Malone-Colon, a psychologist who is director of the Washington-based National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, a clearinghouse for resources for strengthening marriages.

But a negative consequence for the health of black women?

"I know. There are some dynamics we haven't given a lot of attention to, though one could hypothesize. It probably has to do with the quality of marriage -- self-reported levels of satisfaction with the marriage.

"In a number of surveys, African Americans report that they are less satisfied. They also report higher levels of conflict -- even violence. Then there's the matter of domestic justice -- sharing household responsibilities. And infidelity rates are higher among African American men."

Malone-Colon is African American.

David Blankenhorn, who heads the Institute for American Values, will not be pleased with my emphasis on what is perhaps the only negative finding of the study. (Besides Malone-Colon, who is associated with Hampton University, the authors are Lorraine Blackman of Indiana University, Obie Clayton of Morehouse College, Norval Glenn of the University of Texas and Alex Roberts of the Institute for American Values.) But the negative correlation between marriage and health for black women is intriguing -- and surely worthy of further exploration.

Blankenhorn wouldn't disagree with that. But the positive findings are important, too, he insists. "No matter how you look at it, marriage turns out to be a lifeline for African American males," he said.

He believes the review, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, underscores the case for black marriage, even though the noneconomic benefits may be more pronounced for white couples. White children also benefit somewhat more from their parents' marriage than black children, though both clearly benefit. Black boys benefit more than black girls.

The overall significance of the study, he says, is that marriage does yield important benefits for African Americans.

As the report itself notes: "There is every reason to believe that increased marriage rates, and especially higher numbers of good marriages, would bring significant improvements to black people's lives. To take one example, we have seen in this review that higher marriage rates among African Americans would almost certainly reduce the risks of juvenile delinquency facing young African American males."

Moreover, the scholars conclude, strengthening marriage in black America might be as effective as "any other strategy" in addressing the crisis of black males.

But the implied caveat is that they'd better be good marriages -- non-conflictual, nonviolent and fair.

Black women have seen the other kind of marriage and they are, quite literally, sick of it.

willrasp@washpost.com

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