Deaths of despair have claimed an increasing number of white people in the past decade. Opioid addictions, suicide, and deaths from drug and alcohol abuse have ticked up across America — and a new study found that single people are at far greater risk in this tragic societal trend.
“The overall rise in White mortality is limited almost exclusively to those who are not married, for men and women. By comparison, mortality for Blacks and Hispanics has fallen or remained flat regardless of marital status (except for young, single Hispanic men),” Philip N. Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, reported in his new study, “The rising marriage mortality gap among Whites.”
Less-educated whites are more likely to die in this deaths of despair epidemic, but “because mortality has risen faster for unmarried Whites at all but the lowest education levels, there has been an increase in the marriage mortality ratio.”
Cohen analyzed death rates for married and single whites between the years of 2007 and 2017. He found that “the recent White mortality increase is disproportionately experienced by whose who are not married as well as those who have less than a [Bachelor of Arts] degree.”
“The ratio of single to married death rates increased for Whites of all ages over the decade, with dramatic increases under age 40. At the most extreme, for the age range 30-34, the ratio increased from 3.0 to 3.9 for White men, and from 2.5 to 3.5 for White women,” he reported. “The marriage mortality gap is higher for men than for women in all groups. This implies that either the protective effects of marriage, or the selection pressures into marriage, are stronger for men than for women. The Hispanic and Black marriage mortality ratios are lower than they are for Whites.”
“It appears the overall White marriage mortality ratio is driven both by increasing death rates for everyone at the lowest levels of education, and by increasing marriage disparities at higher levels of education,” Cohen explained.
“During the period when premature White mortality jumped upward, which has been associated with the opioid epidemic, as well as alcohol-related deaths and suicide, the increases were markedly greater for those who were single, especially for those under age 40,” according to his report. “Among 30-34 year olds, single White men are now 3.9-times more likely to die than those who are married, and the ratio is 3.5-to-1 for Women.”
“Some of this increase may be because single people are increasingly concentrated at lower levels of education, where mortality rates are much higher. But even among those with more than a high school education, single White mortality rates rose, and the ratio of single to married mortality rates increased,” Cohen wrote.
The psychology professor warned that the “mortality differentials are an increasingly important component of the social hierarchy associated with marital status.”
In other words, married people are statistically more likely to be more educated, to make more money, and to live longer.
“This paper shows that the recent White mortality increase is disproportionately experienced by those who are not married as well as those who have less than a BA degree,” Cohen wrote. “Marriage is increasingly a feature of privileged life in the United States, and mortality is an important component of that pattern.”
“The growing mortality gap between married and single Whites is a social fact. If single people are increasingly more likely to die than married people, that implies a growing marital status social hierarchy,” the sociologist added, echoing some of the points in his book The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change.
In sharing the study on Twitter, Cohen argued that “more marriage” would not necessarily “solve the problem.” He claimed that if the government were to promote marriage, there is “no reason to suspect the extra marriages gained (if any) would be the ones that bring the protective benefits observed among existing marriages.”
Policy sidenote: Does this mean more marriage would solve the problem, so the government should promote marriage? Unlikely. No reason to suspect the extra marriages gained (if any) would be the ones that bring the protective benefits observed among existing marriages.
— Philip N Cohen (@familyunequal) November 1, 2019
Whether or not the government should promote marriage, this study suggests a stronger culture of marriage could save lives.
Marriage and family give people more purpose in life, and that seems especially important for young men. A lifelong romantic relationship not only satisfies physical desires but provides men and women with a reliable partner to share their joys and sorrows, victories and defeats. This kind of relationship helps men live wiser and avoid the kind of risks that lead to premature death.
Naturally, not everyone can get married. St. Paul wrote that he preferred Christians to remain single so they could be fully dedicated to serving God (1 Corinthians 7:7). This increase in deaths among white singles came at a time of declining religious belief and practice among white people, and singleness is less associated with celibacy in modern America.
Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote the powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning, explaining that those who had a purpose to live were more likely to survive the death camps. Modern America is nothing like the Holocaust, of course, but the key lesson of his book may help explain this marriage mortality differential. Married people are less likely to die young because they have someone to live for.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.