Culture

What Government Can’t Do

(Nina Vaclavova/Dreamstime)

Let’s call this the most unsurprising headline of the year so far: “Marriage Increases The Odds Of Surviving Cancer, Studies Find.” Next thing you know they’ll be discovering that salt makes you thirsty. I’m not actually belittling the science, more the opposite. Even the most cursory glance at social-science data accumulated over the past, oh, 150 years, provides copious evidence that we humans do better pair-bonded for life. And if data doesn’t convince you, there’s also literature, anecdote, tradition, and intuition. But let’s stick with science for now.

Two studies published in the journal Cancer found that among 800,000 adults diagnosed with cancer between 2000 and 2009, those who were married survived the disease at higher rates than single people — much higher rates. Especially men. The death rate among unmarried women was 19 percent higher than for married women, and for unmarried men the rate was 27 percent higher. The researchers controlled for factors such as income, health-insurance status, race, and other factors but still found that marriage was a key variable. Scarlett Lin Gomez of the Cancer Prevention Institute, one of the authors, told the Washington Post that money does not explain her results, but that “social support” is a “key factor.”

It’s interesting about the men, isn’t it? Marriage confers many benefits on women (though the early feminists were venomously anti-marriage), but study after study has found that when it comes to health and longevity, men benefit even more than women from tying the knot (and keeping it tied).

The Harvard Men’s Health Watch, for example, cites a report from the Framingham Offspring Study that evaluated 3,682 adults over a ten-year period for heart-related conditions. Even after taking into account major risk factors such as age, body fat percentage, smoking, blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol, married men had a 46 percent lower rate of death than unmarried men.

Other studies cited by Harvard have found that married men have lower levels of depression, reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease, improved blood-sugar levels, and, as in the studies mentioned above, lower levels of cancer and better survival rates after diagnosis.

According to 2010 Census data, African-American two-earner married couples had mean incomes above the national average for married couples.

When examined through the marriage lens, other differentials in American life can be understood as flowing from this most basic of human relationships. Marriage confers not just health and longevity, but wealth, life satisfaction, community engagement, and other social goods. There is a large income gap between white and black Americans. But the marriage rate among African Americans has been significantly below that of others for several generations (though the white and Hispanic rates of unmarried parenting are sharply increasing). According to 2010 Census data, African-American two-earner married couples had mean incomes above the national average for married couples.

Unfortunately, married couples are the minority in the black community. Sixty-six percent of black children are raised in single-parent homes, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The rate for Hispanics is 42 percent and for non-Hispanic whites, 25 percent. In 2013, half of all mothers aged 30 and younger were unwed.

The results of the retreat from marriage have been evident in the black community for some time — but were co-morbid with other things. Were the high crime rates and poor school performance the result of the collapse of marriage or the residue of slavery and Jim Crow? Were the higher rates of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease in the African-American community related to family structure or poverty, and if the latter, was the poverty the cause or the effect of family structure?

With the Hispanic and white populations now retreating from marriage as well, many of the pathologies that had been politely called “inner-city” woes — widespread drug abuse, joblessness, mental illness, and school failure — are on the upswing among whites. And now there is no comparable history of discrimination to cloud the picture.

Last year, Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton published a much-discussed paper showing that the death rate among middle-aged non-Hispanic whites was increasing and that the rise was attributable to behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. I wrote to Deaton asking whether he and his wife had analyzed the data for marriage. He said no, but someone should.

In 1989, Irving Kristol declined fully to embrace triumphalism about our victory in the Cold War with the communist world. His Cold War, the cultural one, he wrote, was not won but lost. Our political crises are to a very considerable degree downstream of our cultural ones. 

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