Racial disparities dim quality of life during Black Americans’ golden years

A JSI Research and Training Institute study revealed that only 48.3% of African Americans reach the age of 80 compared to 57.6% of White Americans. Disproportionate resources provided to older Black Americans is a major reason why. Elderly Black Americans have significant health and aging needs that aren’t being met. Socioeconomic inequity early in life lingers and worsens during what are supposed to be the golden years. Systemic inequality and resource lapses ill-affect Black Americans’ quality of aging and life expectancy. Recent studies on the matter show three major areas of immediate concern: mental health, economic insecurity, and disabilities.

Mental Health 

Throughout their lives, Black Americans face discrimination, trauma, and violence that is rarely, if ever, properly addressed through therapy or psychology. Stigma, self-soothing, and limited access to high quality mental healthcare, can leave long-term damage that shows up as depression, high blood pressure, and habits that exacerbate underlying dispositions and conditions. 

A 2020 study by Drs. Robert Joseph Taylor and Linda M. Chatters specifically tackles psychiatric disorders among Black Americans. This study not only combs sparse prior research, but it also attempts to differentiate between African Americans and Black people of Caribbean origin. Excerpts of data gathered in the study are alarming:

  • Studies using the NSAL data indicate that for both adults (Williams et al., 2007) and older adults (Woodward et al., 2013), Black Caribbean men have higher rates of [Major Depressive Disorder] MDD than African American men.”
  • “Using the NSAL [National Survey of American Life: Coping with Stress in the 21st Century], Ford and colleagues (2007) established the first ever national estimates of psychiatric disorders among older African Americans, indicating that 23% of older (55+) African Americans reported at least one lifetime disorder and 8.54% reported at least one 12-month disorder. The most prevalent 12-month disorders were PTSD, major depression, and social phobia, while the most prevalent lifetime disorders were alcohol abuse, PTSD, and major depression.” 
  • Lee, McCormick, Hicken, and Wildeman (2015) indicate that 44% of African American women and 34% of African American men have a family member who has been incarcerated, compared with 12% and 6% of white women and men, respectively. One in nine black children has an incarcerated parent (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2013)…For instance, one study found that African Americans who had a family member who was currently incarcerated reported more psychological distress (Mouzon, Taylor, Nguyen, & Chatters, 2016).”
  • “Using a life-course perspective, Umberson and colleagues (2017) found that blacks are more likely than whites to experience deaths of family members at specific periods of the life course (from childhood through midlife: parents and sibling deaths; from young adulthood on: death of a child and spouse). These ‘off-time’ deaths are especially powerful life events that have negative impacts on mental and physical health, as well as economic and educational trajectories for individuals (e.g., children, spouses) and family members (via “linked lives”).”

Economic Insecurity

According to reports of data from UMASS Boston’s Elder Index, among the elderly, 72% of Latinos and 64% of Black Americans face economic insecurity compared to 47% of White Americans. This disparity leaves less discretionary spending beyond housing, utilities, and minimal medical care. There are two prominent reasons for the economic insecurity that Latinos and Black Americans face: large wage gaps and low inheritances. Recent studies explain:

  • “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for Black or African Americans in 2020 was at 11.4%. For Hispanics, it was 10.4%. Asian workers, 8.7%. For whites, it was 7.3 percent. These shocking unemployment rates are often more than double the rates observed in 2019.” – The 2021 State of the Race and Gender Pay Gap Report by Payscale Research
  • According to a 2018 research study, “Homelessness is associated with a range of poor physical and mental health outcomes, including premature death (Barrow et al. 1999; Fazel et al. 2014; Montgomery et al. 2016; O’Connell 2005).” In its survey of 6,545 individuals aged 47 to 68, “6.2 % of respondents had been homeless at some point. Lifetime prevalence was significantly higher for minorities; 1 in 6 non-Hispanic Blacks (16.8 %) and 1 in 12 Hispanics (8.1 %) had been homeless at some point, compared with 1 in 20 non-Hispanic whites (4.8 %).”
  • According to the Harvard Gazette, “The typical white American family has roughly 10 times as much wealth as the typical African American family and the typical Latino family. In other words, while the median white household has about $100,000-$200,000 net worth, Blacks and Latinos have $10,000-$20,000 net worth.”
  • According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, “While it is clear the racial wealth divide grows sharply with age, there is very little understanding of retirement security best practices for low-wealth seniors. White families accumulate more wealth over their lives than Black or Latino families do and are more prepared for retirement. More specifically, 83% of African American senior households and 90% of Latino households are expected to have insufficient household resources to live out their remaining years, compared to 53% of Whites. Asset-poverty among seniors of color causes significant financial strain on their families who are often liquid asset-poor and financially insecure. In fact, as of 2011, African Americans had a median liquid wealth of only $200, compared to $23,000 held by Whites and $19,500 held by Asians.” 
  • According to a 2017 EPI report, “White families are twice as likely to receive an inheritance as black families, and that inheritance is nearly three times as much… For families with an inheritance, median white wealth is 7.5 times larger than for black families. Comparatively, white families have 5.4 times more wealth than black families without an inheritance… At the median, an inheritance increases wealth by more than $100,000 for white families and only $4,000 for black families.” 


The Chicago Tribune also reported that the culmination of previously mentioned issues takes a physical toll on elderly Black people. Based on a 2011 University of Michigan study of 6,000 whites and 2,000 blacks ages 65+ older,researchers found that 22 percent of whites over 65 had a disability in 2011, compared with 32 percent of blacks. For instance, 18 percent of blacks in 2011 had trouble shopping for groceries compared with 11 percent of whites.” The cost of living generally increases for people with disabilities, just as their physical capacities limit their social lives (triggering isolation and mental health battles) and restrict economic and employment opportunities. Employment is so closely tied to access to quality health insurance in the United States that it is clear how pay and employment disparities earlier in life easily snowball to poverty and illness in later stages of life.  

The Social Security Administration noted in a 2014 report that African Americans are a “critical focus for social insurance programs,” because of the economic disadvantages they face. “Using the [American Community Survey, which contains about three million households] ACS definition of disability, African Americans were more likely to be disabled than were individuals in the total population, 14.4 percent versus 12.6 percent. These findings are consistent with other research showing that African Americans experience a higher incidence of chronic diseases that can lead to disability. For example, although the leading causes of death for the US population—namely, heart disease (25 percent) and cancer (23 percent)—are similar regardless of race and ethnicity, African Americans have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.”

See Also

What can be done?

Most Black Americans realize all too late that they are unable to afford their later stage life expenses, but research data is becoming available much earlier, making it possible for individuals and families to better understand what to expect – even before inflation and medical bills mount. Black-specific aging advocacy programs, like Catholic Community Services’ African American Elders Program, the Center for African American Health, and the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging try to provide immediate solutions for individuals and devise larger-scale reforms that could help the masses. But research shows that the problem is large.

For elders immediately facing hardship, Eldercare Locator is the first line of defense. Their resources are available to the aging, as well as their caregivers, who may not be aware of free or low-cost resources for basics like housing, insurance, transportation, and elder’s rights. Young Black Americans who are planning for their own retirement would be wise to over save. We are less likely to receive an inheritance from our elders, and more likely to shoulder financial responsibilities for their care and well-being. Eldercare burdens only further exacerbate wealth-building prospects for American minorities, who are already economically disadvantaged in salaried employment. The recent studies on African American aging show that, unfortunately, racial disparities never sunset.


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