Sept. 28, 1995

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    Waite urges strong stand on marriage, family life

    As president of the Population Research Association of America, Linda Waite has recommended that scholars take a strong stand in pointing out the advantages of promoting healthy family life. In her presidential address to the association, for example, she pointed out the numerous social advantages of marriage over remaining single.

    Social scientists have a responsibility to "weigh the evidence of the consequences of social behaviors in the same way that medical researchers have to weigh the evidence of the effects of smoking or exercise" and communicate their views to the public, she told her colleagues.

    Recently, the growing number of never-married, divorced and cohabiting adults has reduced the percentage of married couples in the population. Because people make decisions about marriage based on their views of what the benefits could be, social scientists should inform people of advantages suggested by recent research, said Waite, who points out that the benefits of marriage far outweigh those of living together.

    According to Waite, marriage can be understood as a kind of insurance policy that promotes economic and physical well-being. Among her findings:

    _ Marriage prolongs life. In a study published earlier this year, Waite and another researcher found that for both men and women, marriage lengthens the life span. This benefit increases with the duration of the union. Married men live, on average, 10 years longer than nonmarried men, and married women live about four years longer than nonmarried women. Married men live longer because they adopt less risky, more healthy lifestyles as a result of the commitment brought on by marriage, and married women live longer due to improved financial well-being as a result of marriage.

    _ Married people have sex more often and enjoy it more. Concern about sexually transmitted diseases may have decreased people's willingness to have sex outside of marriage.

    _ Having children improves the chances that people will remain married, because having a family increases commitment to marriage.

    _ Cohabitation does not increase the likelihood of a stable marriage. People who have cohabited may have a decreased commitment to the institution of marriage, even after they marry.

    Because of the many benefits of marriage, society needs to do more to promote the institution of marriage, Waite said. She would like to see health organizations and religious groups increase their efforts to provide programs that support marriage. She also recommends changing government policies and programs that undermine marriage, including welfare programs that discourage marriage and tax laws that impose a "marriage penalty."

    -- W.H.