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Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Key Findings from the National Survey of America's Families

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Document date: February 01, 2000
Released online: February 01, 2000

Number B-5 in Series, "New Federalism: National Survey of America's Families"

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

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More than 30 years after the passage of civil rights legislation, significant economic and social inequalities persist amongst racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Analysis of well-being by race and ethnicity using data from the 1997 National Survey of America’s Families (NSAF) confirms that disparities exist both within and across all racial and ethnic groups. Even at higher incomes, whites and Asians repeatedly fare better than blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.1

This finding is significant because differences in income do not fully explain the inequities in well-being across racial and ethnic groups in the United States.2 However, despite similarities in well-being among blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans and between whites and Asians, the groups also differ significantly across several measures, which suggests that new policy approaches may be needed to reduce inequalities.

This brief outlines NSAF findings on seven indicators of well-being by race and ethnicity: poverty, family structure, child support, food hardship, housing hardship, health status, and health insurance coverage. For the purpose of this brief, all persons of Hispanic origin were grouped by ethnicity into the Hispanic category and non-Hispanics were grouped by racial category. The five resulting racial/ethnic categories used in our analysis are Hispanic, white, black, Asian, and Native American. Seventy percent of nonelderly persons in the United States are white. The largest minority group in the United States is black, which represents 13 percent of the total nonelderly population. The Hispanic population is almost as large as the black population, representing 12 percent of the total, and is expected to become the largest minority group by the year 2005 (The Council of Economic Advisors for the President’s Initiative on Race 1998). Asians represent 4 percent of the total, while Native Americans represent 1 percent.

Poverty

To evaluate poverty, the NSAF compared each family’s 1996 income to that year’s federal poverty level (FPL).3 Figure 1 shows poor (below 100 percent of the FPL) and low-income (below 200 percent of the FPL) people by race and ethnicity. Across all racial and ethnic groups, 15 percent of the nonelderly are poor. Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, however, each have poverty rates almost twice as high as Asians and almost three times as high as whites. Among low-income persons, inequalities across racial and ethnic groups persist. While 26 percent of whites and 29 percent of Asians are low-income, the rate is 49 percent for blacks, 54 percent for Native Americans, and 61 percent for Hispanics. Hispanics are significantly more likely than blacks to be low-income.

Figure 1

One advantage of NSAF data is the ability they provide researchers to analyze representative state-level data across 13 focal states. At the state level, poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics varied widely. Blacks in Alabama, Mississippi, and Wisconsin were significantly poorer than blacks nationwide. In New Jersey and Colorado, blacks were significantly less poor than the national average. Hispanic poverty varied even more widely across states: in Massachusetts, New York, and Texas, Hispanics were significantly poorer than their counterparts nationwide. In Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, Hispanics were significantly less poor than the national Hispanic average.

Family Structure

The NSAF looked at each family’s composition to classify children’s living environments into one of four designations. As figure 2 shows, the vast majority of white and Asian children lived with two parents, while slightly more than half of Hispanic children and half of Native American children lived in two-parent families. In contrast, only about one-third of black children lived with two parents, a rate less than half the national average. Asian children were significantly more likely than white children to live in two-parent families.

Figure 2

Across all racial and ethnic groups, 3 percent of children live without either parent, in what the NSAF terms a no-parent family. Children in no-parent families include, for example, those who are emancipated minors or those living with their grandparents. The rate of no-parent families among blacks and Native Americans is at least three times the rate of any other racial/ethnic group.

Nationally, poverty in one-parent families is four times as high as poverty in two-parent families. Poverty rates in one-parent families are very similar among blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics, but poverty rates of two-parent black families are half that of two-parent Native American and Hispanic families.

Child Support

Nationally, 52 percent of children with a nonresident parent received financial assistance in the past year (table 1). White children with a nonresident parent were more likely to receive child support (58 percent) than all other groups, including Asian children (43 percent). Black children with a nonresident parent were also significantly more likely to receive child support than their Hispanic counterparts (48 percent versus 40 percent).

Table 1
Children with a Nonresident Parent Who Recieved Child Support, by Race and Ethnicity, 1996-1997
White Non-Hispanic % Black Non-Hispanic % Hispanic, All Races % Asian and Pacific Islander Non-Hispanic % Native American and Aleut Eskimo Non-Hispanic % All Races/ Ethnicities %
58.4 48.4 40.1 43.0 37.6 51.9

Source: Urban Institute calculations from the 1997 National Survey of America's Families.

Food and Housing Hardship

Hardship was measured by examining the affordability of food and housing over the previous year. To measure food hardship, adults in the family were asked whether: (1) they or their families worried that food would run out before they got money to buy more, (2) the food they bought did run out, or (3) one or more adults ate less or skipped meals because there wasn’t enough money for food. Nationally, 25 percent of the nonelderly lived in a family experiencing food problems in the previous year (table 2). The differences in food hardship across racial and ethnic groups are striking; across all income groups, Hispanic, black, and Native American nonelderly experienced food problems at a rate nearly twice that of white and Asian nonelderly.

To measure housing hardship, adults were asked whether they had been unable to pay rent, mortgage, or utility bills in the previous year. Thirteen percent of all nonelderly persons lived in families that reported housing hardship during that year (table 2). Across all income levels, the bimodal pattern of well-being by ethnic group was again apparent, since rates of housing hardship for blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans were twice as high as those for Asians and whites. Asians, however, were significantly less likely than whites to report housing hardship. Although it appears that higher-income Native Americans were less likely to report housing hardship than whites, this difference was not statistically significant. Intragroup disparities were pronounced in many racial and ethnic groups, including Asians, whose rates of housing insecurity among low-income families were more than five times higher than among higher-income families.

Table 2
Nonelderly in Families Experiencing Food or Housing Hardship within the Past Year, 1997
  White Non-Hispanic % Black Non-Hispanic % Hispanic, All Races % Asian and Pacific Islander Non-Hispanic % Native American and Aleut Eskimo Non-Hispanic % All Races/ Ethnicities %
Nonelderly in Families Experiencing Food Hardship
Low-Income 40.4 55.3 55.0 36.9 58.9 45.9
Higher-Income 11.4 20.4 22.8 15.8 32.1 13.3
All Incomes 18.2 34.7 40.8 21.4 44.7 22.8
Nonelderly in Families That Were Unable to Pay Rent, Mortgage, or Utility Bills
Low-Income 24.2 29.8 24.5 20.7 40.5 25.4
Higher-Income 6.5 13.2 11.6 3.5 5.3 7.4
All Incomes 11.1 21.4 19.4 8.5 24.4 13.4

Source: Urban Institute calculations from the 1997 National Survey of America's Families.


Figure 3

Health Status and Health Insurance

To measure health status, adults were asked whether their current health status was excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor. As figure 3 shows, Hispanic adults were by far the most likely to be in fair or poor health. Racial and ethnic disparities in health status persisted across both low- and higher-income groups. Low-income Hispanic adults in particular were most likely to report being in fair or poor health (33 percent), and this rate was significantly different from that of any other racial/ethnic group. In comparison, 23 percent of blacks and 20 percent of Native Americans and whites in the low-income bracket reported fair or poor health status. Low-income Asian adults were the least likely to be in fair or poor health (12 percent), a rate significantly lower than that for whites.

Health insurance status at the time of the survey is presented in table 3.4 Across all income levels, the vast majority of white and Asian children were privately insured, while less than half of black, Hispanic, and Native American children had private coverage.5 Among low-income children, 16 percent of black children were uninsured, whereas 19 percent of Asian and white children were (not a significant difference). Comparative-ly, 29 percent of low-income Hispanic children and 48 percent of Native American children were uninsured. Among adults, patterns of disparity across different racial and ethnic groups again emerge. The prevalence of uninsurance is much higher for black, Native American, and Hispanic adults than for whites and Asians. White adults were significantly less likely than Asian adults to be uninsured.

Table 3
Health Insurance Coverage of Children and Nonelderly Adults, but Race and Ethnicity, 1997
  White Non-Hispanic % Black Non-Hispanic % Hispanic, All Races % Asian and Pacific Islander Non-Hispanic % Native American and Aleut Eskimo Non-Hispanic % All Races/ Ethnicities %
Health Insurance Coverage of Children
Low-Income
Uninsured 18.5 16.4 29.4 18.8 48.0 21.0
Publicly Insured 30.3 53.0 44.2 42.5 37.0 39.3
Privately Insured 51.2 30.7 26.5 38.7 15.0 39.6
Higher-Income
Uninsured 4.3 7.2 7.9 5.0 10.0 4.9
Publicly Insured 4.0 11.1 8.6 5.3 4.5 5.1
Privately Insured 91.7 81.7 83.5 89.8 85.5 89.9
All Incomes
Uninsured 8.8 13.1 22.8 9.4 34.9 11.8
Publicly Insured 12.4 37.9 33.2 17.1 25.8 19.8
Privately Insured 78.7 49.1 44.0 73.6 39.3 68.4
Health Insurance Coverage of Nonelderly Adults
Low-Income
Uninsured 31.5 34.1 52.6 38.9 57.3 36.9
Publicly Insured 18.3 29.2 16.5 14.3 28.8 19.8
Privately Insured 50.2 36.7 30.9 46.8 13.9 43.4
Higher-Income
Uninsured 7.5 13.0 17.3 8.6 15.9 8.8
Publicly Insured 2.8 5.6 4.3 6.2 8.1 3.4
Privately Insured 89.7 81.4 78.3 85.2 76.0 87.9
All Incomes
Uninsured 13.1 21.8 36.9 17.1 35.9 17.0
Publicly Insured 6.4 15.4 11.1 8.4 18.0 8.2
Privately Insured 80.5 62.9 52.0 74.5 46.1 74.8

Source: Urban Institute calculations from the 1997 National Survey of America's Families.

Trends and Nuances

The indicators of well-being presented here show that inequities across racial and ethnic boundaries in the United States persist more than 30 years after the passage of civil rights legislation. Differences across groups remain even when looking separately at low- and higher-income families. Some differences are attributable to the fact that within these income groupings, blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans have a lower average income than whites and Asians. Still, regardless of income, race and ethnicity are strongly correlated with well-being in the United States. Children born into black, Native American, or Hispanic families are almost three times as likely to be poor as children born into white and Asian families.

NSAF survey data also reveal subtle nuances within these general trends. While on many indicators they look similar, whites and Asians do fare differently on several key measures. Whites have significantly higher rates of housing hardship and lower rates of two-parent families than Asians; Asians have significantly higher poverty rates, lower child support rates, and lower private insurance rates than whites.

Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, despite having similar child poverty levels, have very different family compositions, health statuses, and housing hardships. Hispanics are significantly more likely to be low-income, uninsured, and in fair or poor health than blacks. Black children are significantly more likely than Hispanic children to live in single- or no-parent families. Native Americans seem to fare the worst of all the racial and ethnic groups in terms of poverty, child support, food insecurity, and housing insecurity, but it is often impossible to determine whether these differences are statistically significant because of small sample sizes.

Conclusion

The fact that low-income families and children fare worse, in general, than their higher-income counterparts, is well documented. The data presented here suggest that some racial and ethnic groups face hardship that is not tied to income alone. Policies designed to improve well-being that fail to take into account variations among problems facing different racial and ethnic groups are likely to be limited in their effectiveness.

With the recent devolution of federal authority to states, new policy opportunities and challenges emerge. States now have the opportunity to tailor policy approaches to the needs of their own communities, but the risk that issues of race and ethnicity may be ignored still remains. Analysis of emerging information that focuses on local problems experienced by different racial and ethnic groups is needed to ensure that future policies can appropriately address these disparities.




Notes

1. Statistical significance tests have been run on all comparisons made in the text. With the exception of Native Americans, for whom sample sizes were usually too small to prove significantly different, the general trend was as follows: Asian and white rates were not significantly different from each other, nor were black and Hispanic rates. Whites and Asians, however, each had rates significantly different from blacks and Hispanics. This pattern was significant at the 95 percent confidence level and held true for all measures of well-being unless otherwise noted.

2. Even among the higher-income group, Asians and whites have the highest median income, which may account for some of the disparities observed.

3. The federal poverty level is an annually defined measure based on family size (see Dalaker and Naifeh 1998).

4. Rates of uninsurance reported here are lower than those in the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey because of differences in the questions asked (see Snapshots of America’s Families 1999).

5. Following the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey standard, those using the Indian Health Service as their only source of insurance are considered uninsured.


References

The Council of Economic Advisors for the President’s Initiative on Race. 1998. Changing America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being by Race and Hispanic Origin. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Dalaker, Joseph, and Mary Naifeh. 1998. Poverty in the United States: 1997. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. Snapshots of America’s Families. 1999. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute.

The authors wish to thank Lisa Avalos, Shruti Rajan, Margaret Simms, Tim Waidmann, and Alan Weil for their excellent comments on drafts of this paper.

About the Authors

Sarah Staveteig is a research assistant in the Urban Institute’s Assessing the New Federalism project. Her research interests include race and ethnicity, the working poor, state TANF policy, violence against women, and poverty.

Alyssa Wigton is a research associate for the Urban Institute’s Assessing the New Federalism project. She works on crosscutting research issues and assists with core management of the project.



Topics/Tags: | Race/Ethnicity/Gender


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