Jan 1, 1996
Reaping the Marriage Benefit
The erosion of marriage is a constant refrain in political debate and a legitimate concern for society in general. Recent research by Lee Lillard and Linda Waite indicates that it also has severe consequences for individuals. Both men and women benefit from being married and both are at greater risk of dying, at any age, when they are not married--whether never married, separated, divorced, or widowed. In "'Til Death Do Us Part': Marital Disruption and Mortality," Lillard and Waite describe a study in which they provide new insights into the "marriage benefit" and how it works.
Most previous studies of marriage and mortality have found that marriage benefits men more than women—at least to the extent that the difference between death rates for the married and unmarried is substantially higher for men than for women. However, in this research, Lillard and Waite found that, over time, marriage had about the same effect on mortality risk for men and for women—but "over time" is the important qualification. Over a long marriage, the effects for men and women even out, but at the beginning there are significant differences. Right after the wedding, the risk of dying drops considerably for men, but not for women (relative to the risk for unmarried men and women). In contrast, the growing benefit over time is somewhat larger for women than it is for men.
The authors speculate that this immediate drop for men might be explained by premarital "lifestyle": Unmarried men are more likely than unmarried women to engage in risky behavior (for example, poor diet, immoderate drinking, belligerent social behavior). Marriage often brings a more settled lifestyle and more moderate behavior—not to mention better nutrition. But what accounts for the greater cumulative benefit for women over many years of marriage?
The study's results suggest that improved financial resources are a key avenue through which marriage improves well-being and life chances for both men and women—but the effect is much greater for women than for men. Men's risk of dying decreases significantly with marriage—even at low income levels—but married women's risk does not drop significantly until income reaches higher levels. The authors conclude that if "women benefit to an important extent from the access to higher household income that marriage gives them, then this income may be buying them access to better health care, better nutrition, better housing, a safer job, less physical and mental stress, and so on."
Other effects on longevity are less clear from the study's results. Married men's chances of dying drop as their wives' level of education rises. This may indicate that better-educated wives run more health-protective households. But it may also indicate that better-educated women tend to select healthier and more stable mates. At any rate, living arrangements, other than the married state, have no significant effect on longevity for men or for women, once other factors are held constant.
When marriage ends, the effects demonstrate, again, how potent the marriage benefit is and the central role of income for women. The figure's dual panels provide an interesting contrast. Panel A shows the relative risk of dying for men, by marital status. Men who are widowed, divorced, separated, or never married face about the same risk of dying—and it is much higher than the risk for married men. As Panel B shows, the analogous risks for women differ in provocative ways. Currently married women face a lower risk of dying than those who are divorced or were never married and a very much lower risk than women who are separated. Most interesting is that, unlike widowed men, widowed women have about the same risk of dying as currently married women.
These results for widowed women may offer further evidence about income, marital status, and mortality. Lillard and Waite sum it up as follows:
If, as our results suggest, marriage improves the life chances of women primarily through improving their financial well-being, why do never-married, separated, and divorced women fare substantially worse than widowed women, once we take household income into account? We speculate that widowed women with the same level of household income as divorced women are actually better off financially, since they more often have access to assets that remain from their marriage, especially a house. Divorced women often lose their house and generally must divide assets with their ex-husband[s]. . . . [T]he superior asset position of widows compared to divorced women or never-married women could account for the mortality differentials we observe. The impact of assets, as well as income, on the mortality of previously married women deserves additional attention.