Cost of Living While Black

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Blacks have never had it easy in the United States. Nearly 150 years after the end of slavery, African Americans have a lower life expectancy than whites, are more likely to be victims of violent crime, and suffer higher rates of diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

In a new study, two researchers from Penn State Harrisburg looked at the "social cost" of being black by devising a "Living While Black" index.

Shaun L. Gabbidon, a professor of criminal justice who is black, and Steven A. Peterson, who is director of the college's School of Public Affairs and is white, created a quality-of-life measure by rolling together variables such as rates of chronic drinking, mental health problems and suicide, and shortened life spans.

Then they examined how that was affected by stressors such as rates of incarceration, poverty, infant mortality and homicide; per capita sales by black-owned businesses; and lack of health insurance.

Some of their findings, published in last month's Journal of Black Studies, were not surprising. Poor earnings for black businesses and comparatively high rates of poverty, infant mortality and early death all were statistically shown to hurt quality of life.

Relatively high incarceration rates and lack of health insurance, however, did not have much impact, the researchers found. They wrote that "it could be that, even with their overrepresentation in state prison populations, black Americans do not have a sense that it is inevitable that they will be incarcerated in their lifetime."

And blacks might "be used to not having health insurance; therefore it does not affect their quality of life in a significant way."

Numerous public policy moves such as better prenatal care and more alcoholism and mental health counseling might help, the researchers wrote. But the study also showed that religious faith among blacks already provides an effective buffer against life's stresses.

-- Christopher Lee

© 2006 The Washington Post Company