Aging While Black: The Crisis Among Black Americans as They Grow Old

By Rodney A. Brooks



After a lifetime of racial and health inequities, Black seniors are at risk of spending their last years with declining health, little income and virtually no savings.


Numerous studies have noted that Black Americans have worse health than their white counterparts, including chronic diseases and disabilities leading to shorter and sicker lives than white Americans. A recent 2016 CIGNA Health Disparities report found:

· Four in 10 Black men aged 20 or older have high blood pressure, a rate 30 percent higher than that of white men. Black men’s risk of a stroke is twice that of white men. For Black women, 45 percent of those aged 20 and older have high blood pressure, a rate 60 percent higher than white women.

· Black women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women.

· Black men have a 40 percent higher cancer death rate than white men.

· Black Americans are 80 percent more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than whites, and nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized.

· Blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to suffer from Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia.


Black women, said Tyson Brown, associate professor of sociology at Duke University, suffer from some of the highest levels of diabetes, hypertension, and other disabilities. Their health problems limit their ability to continue working. But many Black women have to continue working because of declining income as they age.


“And so, it's sort of a Catch-22,” said Brown. “They're often sort of put in a bind there.”


Black women are especially vulnerable to these health and wealth issues as they outlive their partners and are more likely to be alone and isolated. They also often end up as long-term caregivers for aging and ailing parents and spouses or caring for grandchildren, forcing them to leave jobs and cut short careers. That means Black women are not paying into company-sponsored retirement plans such as pensions and 401(k) plans. It also reduces their payments into Social Security, which means their monthly checks will be less when they do retire.


But overall, African Americans have endured generations of economic racism. This racism has resulted in low wages, low home ownership and little-to-no savings or investments for Black men and women. The impact of these economic inequities has reverberated into multiple generations of poverty.


“Many Black older Americans have endured decades of overt and subtle forms of discrimination in educational, criminal justice systems, and health care systems as well as in jobs, housing, credit and consumer markets,” said Brown, adding that as a result of this discrimination, many older Black Americans have lower levels of education, income, and wealth than whites.


The group Prosperity Now predicts that the average net worth of Black Americans will average zero by 2053.


“The inequities in the current economic system still haunt us because we're still getting paid somewhere between 14 percent and 30 percent less than our counterparts on average,” said Eric Bailey, a Certified Financial PlannerÒ and founder of Bailey Wealth Advisors in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It exacerbates the problem because we have less disposable income during our working years. Without discretionary income, it becomes difficult for people to save and accumulate wealth."


Both the economic and health issues have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.


The current COVID-19 public health crisis devastates both the economy and health of Americans. The burdens of this crisis are not shared equally, however. While communities across the nation have experienced tragic losses, the impacts have been especially hard for low-income and minority communities,” according to Financial Reserves and the Racial Wealth Gap from Inequality.org. According to that report, 14 percent of white households had zero or negative wealth compared with 28 percent of Black households.


William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen, authors of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, said Black Americans constitute 13 percent of the nation’s population but only possess about 2 percent of the nation’s wealth. That corresponds to an $850,000 deficit between the average Black and White household in terms of mean wealth.


“There's an explosive increase in the wealth gap, and it continues progressively as people age.” William A. Darity, Jr.

“There's an explosive increase in the wealth gap, and it continues progressively as people age,” said Darity.


Black families generally have lower incomes than white families, which makes it more difficult to save for retirement. In the Federal Reserve 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances, white families had median and mean family wealth of $188,200 and $983,400, respectively. The median and mean wealth of Black families is less than 15 percent that of white families, at $24,100 and $142,500, respectively.


Black Americans often don't participate in employer sponsored retirement accounts and thus don't get the advantage of stock market growth. Only 44 percent of Black Americans have retirement savings accounts, with a typical balance of around $20,000, compared to 65 percent of white Americans, who have an average balance of $50,000, according to the Federal Reserve. And only 34 percent of African Americans own any stocks or mutual funds, compared to more than half of white people.


“So, there's a big disparity in how people are saving,” said Aaron Schumm, founder and CEO of Vestwell, which provides recordkeeping and support to workplace savings plans.


There’s a reason for that, Schumm noted. African Americans are typically not given the access to vehicles that allow them a better path to save for those latter years when you need the money to pay for health care expenses.


Unfortunately, too many Black Americans have a huge dependency on Social Security, said Schumm. According to the U.S. Social Security Administration, about 38 percent of minority beneficiaries rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income, compared with 28 percent of white people.


"If your only source of income is Social Security, it's not enough to maintain someone," said Renee Nourse, founder of Urban Wealth Management Group and vice chair of the Association of African American Financial Advisors.


The average Social Security benefit is only $1,500 a month, but if you wait until you’re 70 to begin receiving payments, the payment rises to about $3,000, said Theodore Daniels, founder and president of the Society for Financial Education & Professional Development Inc. (SFE&PD).


“We know we're getting older, so we have to start working on this to try to make sure that we have sufficient income to live a good life, and at least sustain yourself,” Daniels noted.


Daniels said many African Americans had to raid their retirement accounts and savings to get through the job losses caused by the pandemic. But his biggest worry is the debt that will have to be paid back after moratoriums on rent, mortgages and other loans are lifted.

“You had a situation where we had a moratorium on mortgage payments, but that debt does not go away,” he said. “And it's going to be a burden on a lot of people over a period of time.”


Also, Daniels said, the hospital bills of those who were sickened by the coronavirus can range from $10,000 to $40,000 for those who didn’t have insurance.


“It all kind of snowballs, and it's a very challenging situation that African Americans and minorities are put in, where they just don't have enough funds available to have the quality of life and the health care that's actually needed in those latter years of life now,” Schumm said.


This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network in Generations and the John A. Hartford Foundation.