Primary Sources

A less violent world; why black mothers may be better off unwed; one (very good) reason to resist early retirement

For Better or Worse

The latest figures from the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that in 2004 a record 1.5 million children were born out of wedlock, nearly 400,000 of them to African-American mothers (69 percent of black newborns that year were born to unmarried women). The difficulties these women face as single mothers are well known, but a recent study suggests that in one respect black women are even worse off if they marry. According to the Institute for American Values, which recently conducted a comprehensive review of data on marriage among African-Americans, married blacks of both sexes tend to have better incomes, face a lower risk of poverty, and report higher levels of happiness than their unmarried counterparts. However, while married black men report better health than single black men, married black women report poorer health than single black women. Black women, the researchers conclude, benefit much less from marriage than white women do, whereas the benefits for black men and white men are roughly equal. The report suggests that racial differences in "marital quality" (white marriages tend to be happier and less conflict-ridden than black marriages) may account for the health gap—which in turn suggests that unhappy marriages take a greater physical toll on women than on men.

"Preliminary Births for 2004," NCHS; "The Consequences of Marriage for African-Americans," Lorraine Blackman et al., Institute for American Values

Heaven Help Us

Sociologists have long observed that religious participation correlates with lower levels of criminality, better health, greater marital stability, and greater self-reported well-being. They do not know, however, whether these effects are produced by religion itself or by other factors. An MIT economist recently investigated the matter by studying neighborhoods where many residents share a religion. He found both greater-than-average religious participation (Catholics are likelier to attend mass if they live in a heavily Catholic neighborhood, for example) and better economic and social indicators, including higher income and education levels and lower divorce rates. Other studies have shown that these indicators are lower than average in ethnic neighborhoods—suggesting that religion in particular, not a general sense of ethnic community or solidarity, leads to the gains. The author found minimal correlation between the religious makeup of a neighborhood and civic participation other than churchgoing—suggesting, similarly, that religious activity in particular, not civic activity in general, is the salient factor. He posits four ideas that might explain his findings: participating in religious activities may increase social interaction, and therefore social capital, in ways that participating in, say, ethnically oriented activities does not; religious institutions may provide greater emotional and financial resources than others during hard times; attending religious schools may bring some as-yet-unidentified extra benefits; and finally, religion may improve well-being directly, perhaps by reducing stress.

"Religious Market Structure, Religious Participation, and Outcomes: Is Religion Good for You?," Jonathan Gruber, National Bureau of Economic Research


Nothing Left to Live For?

If you're thinking about kicking back at age fifty-five in order to make the most of your golden years, you may want to consider a new study published in the British Medical Journal, which finds that early retirees have higher mortality than workers who stay on the job. Researchers followed thousands of employees of Shell Oil who retired at fifty-five, sixty, and sixty-five, tracking them for up to thirty-one years and controlling for sex and socioeconomic status. The employees who retired at sixty-five tended to live longer than those who retired at fifty-five. (Little difference was seen between those who retired at sixty and at sixty-five.) Some of the difference can, of course, be explained by the fact that many workers who retire early do so because of failing health—and indeed, mortality for those aged fifty-five to sixty-five was almost twice as high among those who retired at fifty-five as among those who continued working. But even those early retirees who were healthy enough to reach their sixty-fifth birthdays had a shorter lifespan than those who retired at sixty-five.

"Age at Retirement and Long Term Survival of an Industrial Population: Prospective Cohort Study," Shan P. Tsai et al., British Medical Journal


Peace on Earth
primary sources chart

Newspaper headlines notwithstanding, a new study from the Canada-based Human Security Centre suggests that the world is less violent now than it has been in recent memory. The number of ongoing armed conflicts is 40 percent lower now than in 1992, and the number of deadly conflicts—defined as wars leading to 1,000 or more combat deaths—is 80 percent lower. The number of military coups and attempted coups was 60 percent lower in 2004 than in 1963. And the annual number of victims of genocides and mass killings fell by 80 percent from 1989 to 2001, even taking such places as Bosnia and Rwanda into account. 
The exception to this generally positive trend, of course, is terrorism. To explain the overall decline in violence, the report cites the end of the Cold War and the proxy conflicts that it fueled in developing nations; the end of the often bloody process of decolonization; and UN diplomacy, sanctions, and peacekeeping missions.

"The Human Security Report," Human Security Centre, University of British Columbia

Presented by

Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

 Marshall Poe is a writer and historian. He is the editor in chief of the New Books Network.

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