Who needs marriage?

When it comes to suicide, at least, the answer is: “men.”

Jessie Bernard famously argued that every marriage is really two marriages, his and hers – and his was more beneficial than hers. We know, for example, that both men and women have more family income when they’re married, but that’s mostly because men earn more than women, and married men earn more than single men. We know that women often depend on marriage for their health insurance, because men’s jobs are much more likely to provide coverage. The recent debate about women’s reportedly-declining happiness highlights the slipperiness of subjective indicators of wellbeing.

Sociologists have always considered suicide to be the gold standard measure of psychological wellbeing. And marriage has historically been a key indicator of social integration, the source of belongingness that makes suicide less likely. Although Bernard believed that, with regard to suicide, marriage is more protective of men than of women, recent research has been more equivocal. Now, however, we have a good long-term study with a large U.S. sample that tests this, and finds that, as suspected, marriage protects men more than women from themselves.

Suicide Risk by Marital Status

Source: My figure from Table 2 in Richard Rogers, Patrick Krueger and Tim Wadsworth, “Adult Suicide Mortality in the United States: Marital Status, Family Size, Socioeconomic Status, and Differences by Sex,” Social Science Quarterly, 2009 (90[5]:1167-85).

Controlling for race, age and the number of people in the family, those in marriage relationships have the lowest risk of suicide from 1986 through 2002 (these are called hazard ratios). But the pattern is only statistically significant for men, and it’s much more pronounced. The authors offer reasonable explanations for this:

Marital status—particularly widowhood—is significantly associated with the risk of suicide among males but not among females. These findings are compatible with prior research that suggests that marriage confers greater health benefits for men than for women, potentially because women invest more time and energy than other household members caring for the health and well-being of children, husbands, and older family members. In turn, men are especially vulnerable to the risk of suicide when they lose that social support due to widowhood.

Women, marriage and health insurance

The Center for American Progress has a nice report on the health insurance barriers unmarried women face by Liz Weiss, Ellen-Marie Whelan and Jessica Arons. A good report to use for class, including specific policy recommendations. They offer lots of evidence to document how

unmarried women are uniquely challenged in obtaining and maintaining health insurance. They rarely have the option to get insurance through another person and generally have less income to pay insurance and health care costs. What’s more, married women are vulnerable to changes in marital status that could affect their coverage.

I’m struck by how much more dependent on state coverage single women are than married women. Maybe Catharine MacKinnon would say patriarchy uses the state to keep women alive while they are temporarily outside the care/supervision of a man (and his employer’s patriarchy-enabling health care). On the other hand, maybe this reveals the modern state’s role as protector of women from men’s control, because it opens up the possibility of escaping the marriage system.

Here’s the breakdown:

Health insurance for married and unmarried women

Good issue for feminism: how women are more dependent on men than the wage gap itself would suggest.

Four-out-of-five myths about America

Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins from Brookings write “5 myths about our land of opportunity” in the Washington Post, four of which are really myths:

  • Americans enjoy more economic opportunity than people in other countries. [well, this one is actually not a myth compared with most countries, but they are right in the comparison with “Nordic countries and … the United Kingdom.”]
  • In the United States, each generation does better than the past one.
  • Immigrant workers and the offshoring of jobs drive poverty and inequality in the United States.
  • We can fund new programs to boost opportunity by cutting waste and abuse in the federal budget.

They have good reasons not to fall for those. But this one doesn’t fly:

If we want to increase opportunities for children, we should give their families more income. Of course, money is a factor in upward mobility, but it isn’t the only one; it may not even be the most important.”

But even if it’s not the most important, income sure helps. So the “should” in that myth is just a value judgment, while the rest were empirically based. They add,

“Our research shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children.”

But having more family income (and other family advantages) makes all those intermediate outcomes more likely. They cite as evidence the 1996 welfare reform, which “dramatically increased employment and lowered overall child poverty.” That is the order of events, but the causal story is not so cut-and-dried.

An under-appreciated aspect of the recession is (was?) the toll it took on the already-poor, which reversed the long-term drop in welfare recipients driven by the Clinton reform. At last check the government hasn’t published TANF numbers for the first quarter of 2009, but the upward trend started in 2008 and seems sure to continue. How many of those will be “term-limited” off the program before they can find work from the end of the employment queue in the lagging-employment tail of the recession? Calls for a moratorium on term limits as part of the first stimulus package were not successful. Throwing some money at that problem would still probably do more good than harm.

Whose right to sex education?

The principle of equality for children is fundamentally at odds with the American interpretation of the principle of equality for adults. We defer parenting to parents at the cost of equality for their children. This happens in myriad ways, lots of which involve education. Just as adults are free to donate thousands of dollars to just our neighborhood school’s PTA, to benefit our children and evade responsibility for those of our non-neighbors, we may be free to dictate the terms of the education our children receive.

The right of the parents to control their children is great when it’s great. And the denial of that right is often egregious when it’s taken away from parents who are disenfranchised or oppressed, to the detriment of parents and children alike. But when it’s exercised poorly, the right of parental control is too-often protected by law.

Take sex education. Most states let parents “opt” their children out of what little sex education is still offered. A new report from the Guttmacher Institute lists 37 states and the District of Columbia that permit parental opt-outs for education about sexually-transmitted infections (3 more require affirmative consent before any education on the subject may be delivered). And, before you think better of those without opt-out provisions – most of them only teach abstinence anyway. (Even when parents “opt in,” what do they get? Teachers may have permission to teach about contraception while being blocked from its “advocacy or encouragement.”)

In the last 15 years, the public provision of real sex education has been drastically curtailed in this country. In the short period from 1995 to 2002 the percentage of adolescents receiving formal instruction on birth control methods dropped from 81% to 66% for boys, and 87% to 70% for girls. This was driven by the political movement for “abstinence only” education, abetted by $1.9 billion in federal and mandatory state matching funds.

What did we get for $1.9 billion? Nothing good. Abstinence only education has been shown to have no effect on how much teenagers have sex – none. It also has no effect on the number of partners teenagers have if they do have sex, and no effect on birth control use, pregnancy rates, or sexually transmitted disease infection. Not that these programs don’t accomplish anything. Like virginity pledges, abstinence-only programs do help spread myths that discourage condom use. The opt-out provisions for sex education are intended to permit parents to raise their children according to a particular moral code, and their children’s free access to lifesaving knowledge is a secondary concern.

The last year has seen progress toward broadening sex education, including federal efforts to break the political stranglehold of the abstinence-only movement. But even where such reforms are on the table, as in Wisconsin, more comprehensive sex education still includes a parental opt-out provision. Maybe this is politically unavoidable. But shouldn’t children have rights to real education that are not alienable?