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Racial disparities in child loss

How Losing Family Members Earlier Than Expected Adds to Racial Disadvantage for U.S. Blacks

Debra Umberson


Racial disparities in life expectancy and mortality in the U.S. are longstanding and well-documented: Blacks generally die at younger ages than Whites. However, the damage of these earlier deaths on the remaining family members is an area of racial disadvantage that is largely overlooked. While many studies have shown that the death of one family member has negative effects on the health of the remaining family members, no study has looked at the effects of the deaths of multiple family members over a person’s life time. Studying this question is important because it could reveal an added layer of racial disadvantage suffered by Blacks that is not captured by differences in life expectancy or mortality alone. In this study, the authors hypothesize that deaths of close family members (mother, father, sibling, spouse, child) are more common for Black than for White Americans in childhood, midlife and later life. Using nationally representative data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and the Health and Retirement Study, they estimate the differences by race in the likelihood that Blacks will be exposed to more deaths of close family members than Whites throughout their lives.

Key Findings

Black Americans experience more family member deaths than Whites overall, and specific losses occur earlier in life (see figures).

  • Blacks were three times more likely to experience the death of two or more family members by age 30 and 90 percent more likely to experience four or more deaths by age 60. In stark contrast, Whites were 30 percent more likely to never experience a family member death by age 60.
  • In a cohort born in the 1980s. Black Americans were three times more likely to lose a mother, more than twice as likely to lose a father, and 20 percent more likely to lose a sibling by age 10.
  • Blacks were two and a half times more likely to lose a child by age 20.
  • In older cohorts, born in the 1900s through the 1960s, Black Americans were nearly twice as likely as Whites to lose a spouse by age 60, 50 percent more likely to lose a sibling between the ages of 60 and 70, and 3 times more likely than Whites to lose a child between the ages of 50 and 70.

Ratio of Black/White Cumulative Risk for Specific Family Member Deaths

National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997


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Health and Retirement Study

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In these figures, values above 1 mean Blacks have greater risk than Whites. The authors found that for each type of family member death and across all ages (with the exception of the death of a parent at older ages), Blacks’ risk of exposure to death was greater than it was for Whites.

Policy Implications

This is the first population-based documentation of earlier and repeated bereavement experiences for Black Americans. These losses—an underappreciated facet of racial inequality in the U.S.—undermine mental and physical health and add to racial disparities in overall stress exposure. If losing a family member is a disadvantage in the present in ways that disrupt the future, racial disparities in these losses over a lifetime are a tangible manifestation of racial inequality that needs to be addressed. These findings, therefore, highlight the compounding damage of disparities in life expectancy for Black people in the U.S. They also underscore the need for policymakers to address bereavement and loss among high-risk populations.


Umberson, D., J. K. Olson, R. Crosnoe, H. Liu, T. Pudrovska, & Donnelly, R. (2017). Death of family members as an overlooked source of racial disadvantage in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114(5), 915-920. http://www.pnas.org/ content/114/5/915 pdf+html

Suggested Citation

Umberson, D. (2017). How losing family members earlier than expected adds to racial disadvantage for U.S. blacks. PRC Research Brief 2(1). https://doi. org/10.15781/T2N29PC1R

About the Author

Debra Umberson is a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin and director of the Population Research Center.


This research was supported by an infrastructure grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) awarded to the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, a training grant in population studies from NICHD and a K01 award to Hui Liu from the National Institute on Aging.