Racial Disparity in Family Member Deaths Can Add to Overall Racial Inequality

A study by the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin finds that African-Americans are more likely than Whites to experience the loss of a parent during childhood and more likely to be exposed to multiple family member deaths by mid-life. The authors state that these statistics present an underappreciated layer of racial inequality, which results from reoccurring bereavement. This may lead to the intergenerational transmission of Black health disadvantages.

In a study of more than 42,000 individuals born in the 1980s, the authors found that Blacks were three times more likely than Whites to lose a mother, more than twice as likely to lose a father and 20 percent more likely to lose a sibling by age 10. African Americans were two and a half times more likely than Whites to lose a child by age 30. The authors note that bereavement following the death of even one close family member has lasting adverse consequences for health. Premature losses are especially devastating.

Debra Umberson, a sociology professor who is the director of the Population Research Center and lead author of the study, states that “the potentially substantial damage to surviving family members is a largely overlooked area of racial disadvantage. By calling attention to this heightened vulnerability of Black Americans, our findings underscore the need to address the potential impact of more frequent and earlier exposure to family member deaths in the process of cumulative disadvantage.”

Dr. Umberson added that “death of family members is highly likely to disrupt and strain other family relationships as well as the formation, duration and quality of relationships across the life course, further contributing to a broad range of adverse life outcomes including poor health and lower life expectancy.”

The article, “Death of Family Members as an Overlooked Source of Racial Disadvantage in the United States,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It may be downloaded by clicking here.

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