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Brookings Reports on American Differences in resilience across minorities and whites in Respect of Well-being and mental health amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Low-income African Americans remain the most optimistic of the American race-income cohorts and report significantly better mental health than their poor white counterparts.

by Victor Perton

I am always interested when Carol Graham, the Brookings Institution Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow reports on her research. 

Writing with Yung ChunMichal Grinstein-Weiss and Stephen Roll,  Carol says "The COVID-19 pandemic was an exponential shock to much of the U.S. population and also exposed deep vulnerabilities associated with our fragmented health care system and our extreme income inequality. African Americans, for example, who suffer from racial as well as income inequalities, also suffered disproportionately from COVID-19 incidence and mortality. Predominantly black counties have COVID-19 infection rates that are nearly three times higher than that of predominantly white counties. According to the CDC, while they make up just 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 23 percent of COVID-19 deaths and are 3.5 times more likely to die from the disease compared to white populations."


The authors report on a "nationally representative survey fielded by the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis interviewed approximately 5,500 respondents from all 50 U.S. states from April 27 to May 12. It was internet-based and fielded through Qualtrics."

Consistent with Carol's previous research, the authors say "Presumably, then, African Americans should demonstrate the highest losses in terms of mental health and other dimensions of well-being. Remarkably, though, our findings suggest the opposite. We find that low-income African Americans remain the most optimistic of the race-income cohorts in our data and report significantly better mental health than their poor white counterparts. More generally, Hispanics and African Americans remain more optimistic than do whites in the face of the pandemic..."

"Our findings on race and income differences are, as noted above, remarkable. In keeping with the standard patterns in well-being, higher levels of income are associated with higher levels of life satisfaction and optimism. They are not, however, associated with significant differences in reported mental health.

In contrast, there are large racial differences in well-being across races. The differences in reported life satisfaction—and particularly optimism for the future—between African Americans and whites are almost as large as those across income groups. African Americans also report better mental health than whites, with the most significant differences between low-income Blacks and whites. Hispanics also score higher on life satisfaction and optimism and have slightly better mental health than whites, but the gaps are not as large as those between African Americans and whites...

"These findings seem puzzling in the face of the objective disparities between low-income African Americans and other groups, as well as the disproportionate burden they have suffered from COVID-19. Yet they are remarkably consistent with patterns that we have previously found in the well-being of different race and income cohorts in the face of deaths of despair.

"Using over 1 million responses over five years from Gallup data for the U.S., we find large gaps in optimism and reported stress across poor African Americans and whites, with the former almost three times as likely to be a point higher on the 11 point optimism scale and 50 percent less likely to report experiencing stress the previous day than poor whites (poor Hispanics again fall in between the two groups on the same markers). This finding has stood the test of time, meanwhile, and did not change during and after the time of Trump’s election, for example.

"While African Americans are more optimistic than whites in general in both sets of data, the largest differences are between poor Blacks and poor whites. Matching these metrics with CDC data on deaths of despair (suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning), we find they closely track the patterns in these deaths at the level of individuals, races, and places. African Americans and Hispanics are, for the most part, much less likely to be represented in these deaths than are whites...

"The reasons for this resilience are complex. They include a historical trajectory of overcoming adversity, strong community ties, and continued belief in the promise of education at a time that it has faded among low-income whites. As a result, African Americans and Hispanics are gradually narrowing gaps in education and in life expectancy with whites. Poor whites, meanwhile, have fallen behind in absolute terms compared to wealthy whites and in relative terms compared to minorities, losses that are reflected in their high levels of despair. Historically, meanwhile, optimism among African Americans began to increase in the 1970s, when civil rights improved, and began to fall among less than college educated white men around the same time (coinciding with the first declines in manufacturing). It seems that the same traits that drive minority resilience in general are also protective of well-being and mental health in the context of the pandemic."

Read the original article: "Well-being and mental health amid COVID-19: Differences in resilience across minorities and whites"

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