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‘Kinless’ and Black: What lies in the future for our elders?


Family and financial concerns of a growing population

Some one million American adults are reportedly “kinless.” These persons have no other family member to care for them in their old age. The circumstance is particularly acute among Black  women who, according to a 2018 study conducted by the Population Reference Bureau, have lower levels of wealth and the highest rates of “kinlessness.”

While Black families tend to have what is called “fictive kin networks” (the family they choose whether related or not), there is a growing cohort of kinless seniors who don’t have a partner or family member to provide care in their senior years. Black women are said to receive more support–and daily interactions–by way of extended family members or longtime friends rather than their personal offspring or blood relatives of the same age. If you’re a senior living alone at home, that means that, more often than not, someone else besides a family member is providing informal care.

‘Kinfolk’ outside of blood relations

Kris Marsh, a sociologist with the University of Maryland, doesn’t necessarily agree with some of the findings from the Population Reference Bureau report. She said Black women have unique support systems that they have cultivated for years. She calls the conclusion a bit “short sighted.”

“We do have ‘kin,’” Marsh said. Her 2023 book “The Love Jones Cohort” took a look at the voices and lifestyles of the Black middle-class who are single and living alone. The book is a nuanced understanding of how race, gender, class–coupled with social structures–have shaped the lifestyle factors of those Black persons living alone in their older years.

“Middle-class Black Americans have tapped into a long cultural tradition of creating ‘kin’ with people not related by blood,” Marsh explained. “We have expanded our ‘families’ beyond the traditional nuclear model.”

Traditionally, various standards and policies (such as those determining Social Security benefits and health insurance coverage), have allowed most American seniors a “safety net” once they have retired. That doesn’t always align with the needs of Black seniors who have uniformly formed unique bonds and networks to support them both financially, socially and spiritually in their later years. Marsh said that singlehood can be costly due to the lack of equitable coverage, reduced Social Security benefits, and a limited ability to preserve finances in being the only person to generate income and benefits. Add institutional racism, and the concerns of “single seniors” can and do present a hindrance to a person’s economic well-being.

More seniors are living alone

Data collected in 2023 by the American Community Survey revealed that nearly half of U.S. adults are single including those who are divorced, widowed or never married. In addition, about one-fourth of African-American households consist of one person and that includes women with no marital partner. Instead, this community has embodied a pursuit of “intentional communities” in making arrangements long ago to secure some form of care-giving with long-time friends. Single people, in this case, tend to be more likely to stay in touch with friends over the long term, consequently having a built-in support group that they have confided and trusted in for decades. There are family members to reach out to, but, in reference to African-American women, they may prefer to live a more insular life devoid of family “drama” that can often turn sour when circumstances require regular caregiving and familial interaction.

There’s a downside, of course. African-Americans have always considered relations beyond the biological. However, these supportive networks do not receive the benefits often reserved for  marital and familial bonds. Married seniors typically have two opportunities at health insurance and Social Security benefits because having a spouse provides a second chance at any set of benefits. There is a disadvantage for single seniors because they can’t share in Social Security contributions that married seniors might be able to do.

‘Aging while Black’

“Aging while Black” is a concerning socio-economic issue. Numerous studies have noted that Black seniors have worse health conditions than their White counterparts, including chronic diseases and disabilities leading to sicker retirement years. A CIGNA Health Disparities report from 2018 found that:

— Four in 10 Black seniors have high blood pressure, a rate reportedly 30% higher than that of their White peers. The risk of stroke is twice that of Whites. High blood pressure among Black female seniors is some 60% higher than White women.

— Black female seniors are about 40% more likely to die of breast cancer than White women their age.

— Black male seniors have a roughly 40% higher cancer rate than White men.

— Both Black female and male seniors are reportedly 80% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than Whites, and are nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized.

— Black seniors are more than twice as likely as Whites to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia.

“Many Black older adults have endured decades of overt and subtle forms of discrimination in educational, criminal justice systems and health care systems,” said Tyson Brown, an associate professor of sociology at Duke University. “Black [senior] women, in particular, suffer from some of the highest levels of diabetes, hypertension and other disabilities. In many cases, these health issues have affected their lives for decades, but they had to keep working because of declining income as they age. Once at the retirement age, the problems compound themselves because of lack of finances, lack of access to quality health care providers, and little to no [familial] support systems.”

Lack of sufficient retirement savings

During the work years, African-Americans often don’t participate in employer-sponsored retirement accounts and thus don’t receive the advantage of stock market growth. The Federal Reserve in 2020 reported that only 44% of Black persons have retirement savings accounts (typical  balance of about $20,000), compared to some 65% of White seniors with an average balance of $60,000. Only 34% of Black seniors own any type of stocks or mutual funds, compared to more than half of White people.

Black seniors rely heavily on Social Security benefits, with an average monthly check (for all qualifying persons) amounting to roughly $1,500. It’s lower for the typical Black senior because their take-home pay during employment wasn’t as much as the average White co-worker. Many 

Black seniors have had to regularly dip into their savings accounts to make ends meet. If you’re hospitalized at any point past retirement age, the bill could amount to as much as $14,000 for a one-week stay for those who don’t have insurance. 

“That’s a major concern for any senior, but for Black elderly persons it could be a life-changer,” Brown noted. “Social Security won’t cover that. About 80% of African-Americans age 65 and over who receive Social Security depend on it for 50% or more of their income. It can be a very challenging time to say the least.”

Great strides have been made in raising the incomes of African-Americans age 65 and older, due in part to the inflation protections of Social Security. However, this population remains disproportionately poor (compared to Whites) with more Blacks as they age receiving relatively little income from other sources. In light of overall trends in pension coverage in the United States, Social Security’s central importance to retirement income security cannot be overemphasized.