African American family structure: Are there differences in social, psychological, and economic well-being?

Author: Williams, James Herbert; Auslander, Wendy F A, Cheryl Krebill, Hope Haire-Joshu, Debra Source: Journal of Family Issues 21, no. 7 (Oct 2000): p. 838-857.
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This study addresses the following research questions: (a) What are the various types of family structures that exist in urban African American households? and (b) to what extent do differences in family structure influence social, psychological, and economic well-being as reported by urban African American women? The authors present findings from 301 African American women who participated in a community-based nutrition prevention program in a large Midwestern urban center. This study's results indicate that family structure has more influence on African American women's economic well-being than do social and psychological factors. Implications of these findings for intervention are presented.

There is considerable research on the structure of the African American family. Practitioners must continue to build the knowledge base for service intervention to practice more effectively with African Americans. Much of the previous research has investigated African American families using a deficit model, focusing primarily on the problems of the single-parent household. Many of these studies have investigated the various social (e.g., social support, criminal activities, child rearing), psychological (e.g., selfesteem), and economic (e.g., rates of poverty, economic instability, family assets) components of African American family life (Jayakody, Chatters, & Taylor, 1993; Oliver & Shapiro, 1995; Taylor, Chatters, & Jackson, 1993; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995; M. N. Wilson, Kohn, Curry-El, & Hinton, 1995). Although the research shows an impressive array of studies on African American families, few of these studies examine these components together in one study. This ! study documents the differences among various types of African American families and their association with social, psychological, and economic well-being. Specifically, the following research questions are addressed: (a) What are the different types of family structures that exist in urban African American households? and (b) to what extent do differences in family structures affect social, psychological, and economic well-being as reported by urban African American women?

Historically, research on African American families was conducted by Andrew Billingsley in his seminal work Black Families in White America (1968). He examined the weaknesses, strengths, and configuration patterns of African American families, developing a typology for understanding their structure. He challenged the common observations that there are two types of family structure in the United States-male-headed families and female-headed families-and the assumption that male-headed families provide more support and stability than do female-headed families (Billingsley, 1968). Researchers such as Billingsley and others have shown that this dichotomous approach to characterizing families underestimates the variations within the African American family (Billingsley, 1968; Hatchett & Jackson, 1993; Logan, 1996; Scott & Black, 1989; Sudarkasa, 1993; Taylor et al., 1993).

Billingsley (1968) identified three categories of African American families: primary families (e.g., two-parent), extended families (e.g., other relatives, in-laws), and augmented families (e.g., nonrelated individuals). The structure of the African American family has not remained static over the years. African American women are now twice as likely to maintain families solely as they were in 1940 (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). The rise in female-headed families among African Americans has been swift. Twenty-eight percent of African American families were headed by women in 1970, and 46% were female headed in 1990 (Darity & Myers, 1995; Sudarkasa, 1993). These data make it clear that African American patterns of family formation have undergone substantial change over the past 50 years in a number of important respects. The proportion of African American women and men who marry has declined by 20% over the past 50 years, whereas the figures for the general population h! ave remained steady (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). The combined impact of delayed marriage, more nonmarriage, high divorce rates, and a high rate of births out of wedlock are observed as having a profound effect on family formation in the African American community (Tucker & Mitchell-- Kernan, 1995). Four out of every 10 African American families have a woman maintaining the family without the support of another adult (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). These trends are directly related to the well-being of African American families and communities.

Others have studied differences in family structure in other ethnic minority groups (Beck & Beck, 1989; McLanahan & Casper, 1995; Roschelle, 1993, 1997). However, this study focuses only on African Americans. Although cross-cultural studies are important, a culturally specific approach has value in that it provides a more in-depth understanding of African Americans without comparisons to the dominant culture. This within-group approach contributes to a strengths perspective to investigating African American families rather than focusing on their deficits in comparison to other groups.

Various researchers have identified a significant relation between family structure in the African American communities and marital status, family formation, social supports, and criminal activities (Barbarin, 1983; Davis, Emerson, & Williams, 1997; Davis, Williams, Emerson, & Hourd-- Bryant, 2000; Olson & Banyard, 1993; Sampson, 1986, 1987, 1995; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995; Williams, Ayers, Abbott, & Hawkins, 1999; Williams, Stiffman, & O'Neal, 1998). Family composition is one of the strongest predictors of variations in urban violence in African American communities (Sampson, 1995; Van Voorhis, Cullen, Mathers, & Garner, 1988). African American communities with high rates of family disruption (i.e., mobility, transition) also have high rates of violence (Sampson, 1986,1987,1995). Jayakody et al. (1993) found that levels and types of social support (e.g., child care, emotional) were directly related to family structure for African American mothers. They also identifi! ed a strong relation between family structure and levels of self-esteem (Jayakody et al., 1993). Family structure variables were also found to be significant as predictors of child-rearing behaviors of African American mothers (M. N. Wilson et al., 1995).
Researchers investigating poverty and economics have found that African American family structure strongly correlated with economic instability, high rates of poverty, and financial strain (Oliver, 1995; Oliver & Shapiro, 1995; W. J. Wilson, 1987). The number of children in the household, level of mother's education, and the amount of financial resources were found to be the strongest predictors of child-rearing patterns (M. N. Wilson et al., 1995).
Researchers have identified the richness of the African American experience and the connectedness of African American individuals with institutions and societies (Crosbie-Burnett & Lewis, 1993; Frazier, 1957; Rohrer & Edmonson, 1964). However, previous research has produced studies using a deficit approach to understanding African American families. None of the previous studies focused on how differences in family structure affect social, psychological, and economic well-being as reported by urban African American women.

METHOD
PARTICIPANTS
This study was based on cross-sectional baseline data collected from a community-based nutrition program among urban, low-income African American women. We chose to use baseline data only because the data were derived from an intervention study, and post or follow-up data would have been biased by the treatment delivered to participants. The program was developed as a result of the collaborative partnership between Washington University and peer educators from a social service agency located in the targeted African American communities.

Participants were recruited primarily through a community-based lead agency for the program, through advertisements in neighborhood newspapers that were targeted to African American audiences. Those women who were interested in participating in a study about healthy eating were screened for their eligibility (Auslander, Haire-Joshu, Houston, Williams, & Krebill, 2000). Therefore, the sample consisted of women who were motivated to make lifestyle changes, and thus this was not a random sample of African American women.

Baseline assessment data for 301 African American women were analyzed for this study. The respondents' ages ranged from 24 to 55 years (M = 39.15, SD = 7.97). Table 1 shows that the sample exhibited a wide range in sociodemographic indicators such as education, marital status, number of adults in household, and employment outside the home. Educational level ranged from 15.9% (n = 48) of the women having l21, no. 7 (Oct 2000): p. 838-857ess than a high school education to 18.6% (n = 56) being college graduates. Eighty-four percent of the sample were high school graduates (n = 253). Forty-three percent (n = 129) of the women in the sample were single, and 20.9% (n = 63) of them were currently married. The remainder reported to be either divorced, separated, or widowed. Fifty-four percent (n = 164) of the women had two or more adults living in their household. More than 57% (n = 172) of the entire sample reported having ever married.
 
The financial measures indicate that there is a significant variation in household income among these women. Sixty-one percent of the women had employment outside the home (M income = $1,459.31, SD = $1,111.79, Mdn = $1,070.00). Forty-three percent of the women had a total monthly household income of less than $1,000, and 10.4% had a monthly household income of more than $3,000. Thirty percent of the participants owned their homes, and 58% owned an automobile. Seventy-one percent of the women had at least one child below the age of 18 in their household.
A comparison of sociodemographics indicated that the convenience sample of African Americans in this study is similar in terms of demographics (i.e., marital status, employment, educational attainment, median income) to the general population of African American women. Tucker and Mitchell-Kernan (1995) report that, according to 1990 census data, 63.1 % of African American women were ever married. The percentage of the women in the workforce is comparable to national data, which indicates that 58.7% of African American women participate in the labor force (Hacker, 1992; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). The national data on level of educational attainment and median income for African American women also indicate that our sample is comparable to the general population of African American women. These data show that 74% of African American women nationally are high school graduates, 13% are college graduates, and the median annual income for African American female-headed ho! useholds ranges from $10,269 to $14,650 (U.S. Census Bureau, 1996a, 1996b).

MEASURES
In exploring the influence of family structure on social, psychological, and economic factors, the following variables were created (the measurements discussed in this article were only part of the overall assessment).

Family structures. The variable of family structure was trichotomized into the following categories: (a) married or living together with/without children and/or other family members in the household (married), (b) single with no children or family members living in the household (single no children), and (c) single with children and/or other family members living in the household (single with children).

Social Well-Being
Family social support. A 6-item subscale of perceived social support from family members (Cronbach's (alpha = .85) was also used in comparing different types of family structure (Turner, Frankel, & Levin, 1983). Examples of items used in creating this scale include (a) no matter what happens, I know that my family will always be there for me should I need them, and (b) people in my family provide me with help in finding solutions to my problems. The response categories were strongly disagree, disagree, agree, and strongly agree. Higher scores indicate higher levels of perceived family social support.
Friends' social support. A 9-item subscale of perceived social support from friends (alpha = .74) also was used in comparing different types of family structure (Turner et al., 1983). Examples of items used in creating this scale included (a) even when I am with my friends I feel alone, (b) I feel very close to my friends, and (c) when I want to go out to do things, I know that many of my friends would enjoy doing these things with me. The response categories were strongly disagree, disagree, agree, and strongly agree. Higher scores indicate higher levels of perceived friends' social support.
Neighborhood stressors. An 8-item scale was developed to measure the participants' perception of their community services (alpha = .89) (Dressler, 1991). Examples of items used in the development of this scale are (a) how would you rate your neighborhood on quietness? (b) how would you rate your neighborhood on personal safety? and (c) how would you rate your neighborhood on cleanliness? The response categories were bad, not so good, good, and very good. Higher scores indicate a more positive perception of community services.
Community perceptions. The participants' perception of their community was measured by a 12-item scale (alpha=.74) (Dressler, 1991). Examples of items used in creating this scale are (a) my community provides adequate health care for its members, (b) if a local policeman came to my home, I would feel safe, and (c) if I contacted the local police, they would pay attention to me by responding right away. The response categories were strongly disagree, disagree, agree, and strongly agree. Higher scores indicate a more positive perception of community health, police, and services.
Psychological Well-Being
Self-esteem. A 10-item scale was developed as a measure of the participants' self-esteem (alpha= .85) (Rosenberg, 1965). Examples of items used in creating this scale include (a) I feel that I am a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others, (b) I take a positive attitude about myself, (c) on the whole, I am satisfied with myself, and (d) I wish I could have more respect for myself. The response categories were strongly disagree, disagree, agree, and strongly agree. Higher scores indicate higher levels of self-esteem.
Economic Well-Being
Economic strain. An 8-item scale was used to measure the participants' perception of economic strain (alpha = .79). Examples of items summed in developing this scale include (a) are you able to afford a home suitable for yourself/your family? (b) do you have enough money for the kind of food that you and your family should have? and (c) do you have enough money for the kind of medical care you and your family should have? Participants were asked to provide a yes or no response to each item. Higher scores indicate less economic strain.
Total income. The total monthly income of each participant's household was developed by summing all forms of reported income. This includes not only income derived from working outside the home but also income generated from governmental (e.g., Aid to Families With Dependent Children [AFDC], Social Security) or other sources (e.g., child support, outside family, or friend support).
Percentage of earned income. The percentage of monthly income earned for each participants' household was developed by summing all income reported and calculating what percentage of the total household monthly income was derived from employment outside of the home. This would include husbands/significant others or other adults residing in the home.
Financial well-being. A 16-item scale measuring the participants' financial well-being was developed from the Family Inventory of Resources for Management (McCubbin, Comeau, & Harkins, 1981). In developing this scale, each item was weighted as required by the developers of the instrument (McCubbin et al., 1981). Examples of items used in this scale include (a) when we need something that can't be postponed, we have money in savings to cover it; (b) we feel we are able to go out to eat occasionally without hurting our budget; (c) we feel confident that if our main breadwinner lost his or herjob, he or she could find another one; and (d) in our family we feel it is important to save for the future. The response categories were not at all, minimally, moderately, and very well. . . .
 

DISCUSSION
This study identifies seven different types of family structure that exist in urban African American households. Overall, our results clearly indicate differences in the size, structure, and household composition in this sample, providing evidence for diversity within a sample of urban lowincome African American families. These findings are consistent with previous research indicating that there are numerous configurations to African American family structure (Darity & Meyers, 1995; Horton, Thomas, & Herring, 1995; Jayakody et al., 1993; Ruggles, 1994; M. N. Wilson et al., 1995).
Second, this study investigated the extent to which differences in family structure affect social, psychological, and economic well-being as reported by urban African American women. The overall model indicated that different types of family structure are associated with significant differences in economic strain, total monthly income, and percentage of earned income. Few studies have investigated the influence of African American family structure empirically using an integrated social, psychological, and economic approach (i.e., studies that compare influences from social, psychological, and economic domains). This study provides evidence that family structure has more influence on the economic well-being of African American women than do social and psychological factors such as social support, environmental stress, and self-esteem. These results are consistent with previous literature that posits that economics and poverty are strongly related to many of the family and ! social issues and problems within African American communities (Darity & Myers, 1995; W. J. Wilson, 1987; W. J. Wilson & Neckerman, 1986). Therefore, it is not surprising that family structure and economic well-being are so strongly intertwined.
Although our research questions and analysis infer directionality by examining the influence of family structure on economic, social, and psychological well-being, it is acknowledged that there most likely exist reciprocal influences among these factors. For example, the lower economic status of African American males hinders them from becoming heads of households, thus contributing to the higher prevalence of single women-- headed families and other nontraditional family configurations (W. J. Wilson, 1987). This, in turn, perpetuates the lower economic status of African American families. In fact, the most commonly cited explanations for variability in family structure among African Americans are conditions of poverty, inadequate employment for African American males, lack of a strong marriage pool, and wage differentials between men and women (Darity & Myers, 1995; Rolison, 1992; Ruggles, 1994; W. J. Wilson, 1987; W. J. Wilson & Neckerman, 1986).
From a broad perspective, the findings from this study highlight the importance of understanding the complex interplay of societal forces and African American family structure. This study suggests that individual factors such as self-esteem and social support from family and friends may not be as negatively influenced as economic status, specifically monthly income and economic strain. In our sample, married or living together households with children and/or family members in their household have more economic resources than single women with children and/or family members in the household. The single women with children group has the lowest percentage of earned income, indicating that families in this group are more likely to receive some other types of economic assistance (public, private, other sources). These families are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of poverty (Berrick, 1995). These findings suggest that further study may be warranted on the family/fr! iend social support networks of African American women who are single with children to investigate the influence of these networks. Given recent welfare reform changes, the social support networks of single mothers are expected to be important; however, their influence may be overestimated (Clark, 1993; Dressier, 1985; Lindblad-Goldberg, Dukes, & Lasley, 1988).
The findings from this study should be interpreted with some caution due to its limitations. One limitation is that the women who participated in this study were taken from a convenience sample of women that may not be representative of inner-city African American women in other U.S. cities. However, this limitation is minimized by data described previously that indicate our sample was comparable to national census data relating to marital status, education, income, and African American women in the labor force (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). However, to provide further understanding of the differences in family structure among African Americans that extend beyond a three-group analysis of a motivated convenience sample, a larger, more representative, sample is needed. Second, this study used only one measure of psychological well-being-self esteem. Other measures, such as the SF- 12 (Ware, Kosinski, & Keller, 1995), which assesses physical and mental well-being, could ! provide a more comprehensive view of the participants' psychological status. Third, we were not able to capture, in our multivariate analyses, the diversity of the seven family types due to the relatively small numbers of participants within each category of family structure. A larger sample would have increased our understanding of the differences between all the various forms of family structure in urban African American communities. Winkler (1993) indicates that studying family structure should include an analysis of the living arrangements of women rather than simply the Census Bureau categories. A more detailed examination of family types is warranted. Future work in this area may use the categories of family structure developed by Hatchett and Jackson (1993) or Logan (1996) and use sampling techniques that ensure equal numbers of families in each category.
This study provides an initial exploration of African American family structure and compares its influence on social, psychological, and economic well-being. The findings of this study have implications for human service practitioners and policy. Practitioners in all areas will encounter African American families. It is apparent that there are multiple variations of structure within the African American household. Practitioners are encouraged when working with African American families to address the diversity and uniqueness among these families as an integral part of any intervention strategy. Methods for addressing the problems of the African American family will vary depending on the type of family structure. Individual and family intervention strategies should strongly consider the relation between family structure and economic well-being and how this relation affects the overall functioning of the African American family. The availability of family resources may have! a direct effect on the practitioner's ability to establish successful treatment goals. It is reasonable to assume that diminished economic resources could act as an obstacle for the family and/or individual to make changes that improve his or her well-being. From a deficit model, practitioners may have a tendency to judge and evaluate African American families in terms of their deficiencies and social problems. This study indicates that the structure itself has economic ramifications, which may, in part, contribute to many of the observed social problems. This study indicates that the solutions to some of the social problems among African American families may lie within the economic environment that surrounds families as well as within the individuals who comprise the family, and not within the psychological and social domains of the family.
Research on the impact of economics on families suggests that avoiding the adverse conditions of economic strain is key to life opportunities of children and families. For the future, one critical question is to what extent welfare reform and macroeconomic conditions will affect African American families. The elimination of the AFDC program and sweeping changes in child care, the food stamp program, and other family-based programs offer local government various options for capping or discontinuing benefits to families. The results from this study suggest that welfare reform may be less deleterious on certain types of African American family structures than others. More than 2 years after the passage and implementation of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, there is no consensus on its effects. Research suggests a relation between macroeconomic policies and family formation. Policy prescriptions that take into account variations in African American family structure as related to ! the economic strain and adequate family income may result in felicitous outcomes.
Authors' Note: Portions of this article are based on a presentation given at the International Conference on Research for Social Work Practice in Miami, FL, January 1998. This work was supported through Grant No. R01 DK48143 from the National Institutes of Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Disorders, and the Office of Research on Minority Health of the National Institutes of Health, to the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University-Saint Louis.
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JAMES HERBERT WILLIAMS
WENDY F. AUSLANDER
Washington University
CHERYL A. HOUSTON
Fontbonne College
HOPE KREBILL
Washington University
DEBRA HAIRE-JOSHU
Saint Louis University
 
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