Public Release: 

Health disparities between racial groups affect joblessness

Center for Advancing Health

Health disparities based on racial and ethnic identity account for a significant portion of the differences in employment rates between certain minorities and whites. However, once people are employed, those disparities have minimal effect on income, according to a study published in the September issue of the Milbank Quarterly.

"Health disparities accounted for relatively little of the race/ethnicity gaps in income, which appeared to be associated much more strongly with disparities in education," says study author John Bound, Ph.D., of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan.

Health conditions that limit or prevent people from working occur more frequently among all workers as they grow older, as might be expected. But Bound says that limitations caused by poor health have a greater impact on minorities.

"The prevalence is higher for blacks and Native Americans than for whites," he says, "and it rises with age more steeply for them than for whites."

The impact of these disparities increases, as well, Bound says. Health disparities account for only 3 percent to 9 percent of the employment gap between black and white men aged 25 to 34, but between 17 and 41 percent of the gap between men 55 to 64. A similar pattern exists for Native American men and for black and Native American women.

Bound and his colleagues based their findings on a nationally representative sample population drawn from the 1990 U.S. Census. They documented strong associations between health and labor market outcomes -- like employment and earnings --among black, Native American and white respondents to the Census Bureau's long form. The researchers validated this source by comparing their results to other federal studies of health status, employment and income.

In general, people who reported having a health problem that limited their ability to work were less likely to be working than those without such limitation and who had similar educational backgrounds. Black/white disparities in health account for between 21 percent and 39 percent of the gap in employment between the two groups, Bound says.

Health disparities also partially account for higher use by blacks and Native Americans of public assistance programs. Since the studied population consisted of working-age people under age 65, the major assistance program used was Social Security Disability Insurance. The combination of lower employment status and higher participation in public assistance programs slightly lowered household income, especially among those aged 45 to 64.

However, Bound says, income is more strongly affected by education: "Differences in education account for between 52 and 84 percent of the race/ethnicity disparities in income."


By Aaron Levin, Science Writer
Health Behavior News Service

Health Behavior News Service: 202-387-2829 or Interviews: Contact John Bound, Ph.D. 734-763-2952, or Milbank Quarterly: Contact Bradford H. Gray, Ph.D., at 212-822-7287.

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