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Economic stress difficult for families regardless of ethnicity


Many families experience economic stress such as job loss and salary cuts. Such stress often has negative effects on marriages, parenting, and children’s developmental outcomes. Although all ethnic groups and social classes experience economic stress at some point in their lives, minority families are especially likely to suffer such economic problems. For instance, poverty rates for African-American and Hispanic-American families are three times higher than for non-Latino white families.

Our goal in this study was to better understand the effects of economic stress on Hispanic-American families, a rapidly growing group in the United States that is expected to comprise nearly a quarter of the population by 2050.

We focused on Mexican-American families, who, as a group, are likely to be employed and married with multiple children, but who are also likely to be living below the official poverty level. For comparison purposes, we included a group of non-Hispanic white families. Our key question was: "Does economic stress have similar effects on the functioning of Mexican American and European American families and children?" To answer this question, we studied 167 Mexican-American and 111 European-American parents and their fifth-grade children. We asked parents about the amount of economic hardship they experienced during the last year, such as job loss, unstable work, and income reductions. We also explored feelings of financial pressure, for instance, whether they felt they couldn’t make ends meet, whether they had enough money to be able to afford things like health care and housing, and the extent to which they had to make economic adjustments.

Parents also told us if they experienced depression and about the quality of their marriages. Because parenting can be adversely affected by economic stress and marital relationships, we asked both parents and their children about parenting styles. For example, we wanted to know whether the parents were strict, consistent, warm or hostile. Finally, parents and teachers reported on the children’s externalizing behavior problems, i.e., aggression and acting out, and internalizing behavior, such as depression and anxiety. These were the important child outcomes in our study.

We found that economic hardship such as unstable work leads to feelings of economic pressure that, in turn, are related to higher rates of depression for both mothers and fathers. Although the European-American families had somewhat higher incomes than the Mexican Americans, they were by no means free of economic stress. We found that the links between economic stress and depression were generally the same for both groups. Additionally, we found that depressive symptoms for both ethnic groups were linked with more marital problems and more hostile parenting. This suggests that membership in a group that is better off economically does not necessarily protect individuals within that group from the negative impact of economic stress. It also suggests that the effects of economic stress do not differ between the two ethnic groups studied.

We also found that children are not immune from economic stress and may suffer adjustment problems as a result of family economic adversity. In both ethnic groups, negative outcomes are related to economic stress but the family pathways that lead to these problems appear to be different. For instance, in European-American families, an increase in hostility from the father is linked with the greatest number of child adjustment problems. In contrast, in Mexican-American families, the presence of marital problems rather than hostile parenting styles is associated with poor child adjustment.

Mexican-American families also vary in their degree of acculturation (or how much they speak English, rely on American media, and interact with white non-Hispanics). Mexican-American mothers who were more acculturated experienced more marital problems, but were less hostile in their parenting. This suggests that the independence and greater sharing of power in the family that accompanies acculturation may be associated with more overt conflict in marriage, but is also associated with a less harsh style of parenting.

This study shows that economic stress has important effects on families – regardless of ethnicity or income level. Family practitioners, social workers, and therapists need to be aware that families may need extra help and support during times of economic downturn. Additionally, educators need to be sensitive to the needs of children during these times.

Finally, prevention and intervention efforts must be sensitive to the fact that, while all ethnic groups are vulnerable to economic problems, the type of support the various groups need may vary based on ethnicity.

Stephanie Somerville | EurekAlert!
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