A twist in healthful benefits of marriage

Black women don't fare so well, researchers discover


Maria Calabrese of Woodlawn has sketched out her peach-and-white wedding colors and designed the perfect gown in her head.

After three years of dating her fiance - and having a child with him - she was ecstatic when he dropped to one knee in front of their Pimlico congregation, produced a bouquet of roses that held an engagement ring and proposed marriage.

Calabrese, 20, looks forward eating dinner together as a family, talking after the children are in bed, and praying together. She expects her marriage to last, and expects it to make her happy. "When my kids are grown and out of the house," she said, "I want somebody to be there."

But a new study of African-American unions concludes that all may not be roses after the wedding. Although marriage benefits black women in many ways, it does them less good, on the whole, than it does for the men they marry - and less good than marriage does for white women and men.

In fact, the report says, the health of black women may suffer once they become wives - even as their economic well-being generally improves.

The finding comes from "The Consequences of African-American Marriage," a 72-page examination of studies on black marriage over the past 10 years. The study was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore and produced by the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan think tank based in New York.

The researchers drew their health conclusions after analyzing data from 30 years of American General Social Surveys, administered 25 times since 1972 to a sample of 1,500 to 3,000 people by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Among other questions, the surveys ask participants to rate their own health. Married black women, the study reported, were significantly less likely to report excellent health than unmarried black women.

The researchers, who otherwise found that marriage has many benefits for children and couples, were thrown by the information about black women's health. "These findings are unexpected and beg for explanation," they wrote.

Linda Malone-Colon, an assistant professor of psychology at Hampton University in Virginia and an author of the study, said the conclusion needs to be fleshed out with further research - but suggests a need to pay closer attention to the health of African-American women after they're married.

"Most African-Americans want to get married, and they want to have loving lasting and satisfying marriages," said Malone-Colon, who also directs the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center in Washington. "To me, the next step is, given what we know African-Americans say they want, and that this will be beneficial to them, how do we help them to make that transition in a way that increases the likelihood those marriages will be satisfying?"

But Llewellyn Cornelius, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work who has studied health care among African-Americans, was critical of the study. Because it did not ask specific questions about health or include clinical evaluations, he said, few conclusions can be drawn from it.

Many married people, he said, lack health insurance coverage - but it doesn't mean their marriages are making them sick. "Is there a stressor issue?" Cornelius asked. "Is it mental health? Is it that they don't have access to care? It's a very complicated issue."

Over the last half of the 20th century, the rate of marriage for African-Americans fell sharply. From 1940 to 1996, the percentage of black children living with both parents fell from 76 percent to 33 percent. For white children, the percentage also fell, but from 93 percent to 79 percent.

The study estimates that 35 percent of African-American children live with married parents compared with 76 percent of white children.

The study did not measure the effect of marriage on the well-being of Latino or Asian-American families. According to the institute, there wasn't enough data on those groups for a statistically valid comparison.

Although marriage is months away for Calabrese - she and fiance Darneh Jefferson have set a tentative date of April 8 - she was not surprised by the finding that her health might suffer. "I would think that it's because women have more stress on their backs" in a marriage, she said.

As a mother already, Calabrese said, she has not been to the dentist or for a physical examination in the past five years. With young children, she said, "you don't really have time to focus on going to the doctors."

Jodene Bosset, a consultant who works with young fathers and once worked as a disease intervention specialist for the Baltimore Health Department, remembers that African-American women with HIV tended to die more quickly "because they just did not take care of themselves. They couldn't stop taking care of their children or working even though they were sick."

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