UW News

August 25, 2015

Study: Mixed-race couples with black partners more likely to live in poor neighborhoods

News and Information

Though the number of mixed-race couples in the United States has nearly quadrupled since 1980, relatively little research has been done about where those couples live — and specifically, the level of poverty within their neighborhoods.

That dearth of data prompted Ryan Gabriel, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Washington, to look at where mixed-race couples live as an indicator of their standing in the broader culture.

Gabriel analyzed data on a representative sample of mixed-race couples living in metropolitan areas across the country and found that, regardless of income level, interracial couples with one black partner tended to live in poorer neighborhoods than interracial couples with one white partner as compared with white couples. Mixed-race couples with white — but not black — partners tended to live in low-poverty areas no matter their income level.

“The gap between mixed-raced couples with white and black partners in their exposure to poverty is striking,” said Gabriel, who presented his findings last weekend at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Chicago. “If there’s a black partner, the exposure is immediately higher across the board, no matter your income level.”

Gabriel used data between 1985 and 2009 from the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics, a long-term study conducted by the University of Michigan that measures economic, social and health factors among American families. Gabriel only looked at married or long-term couples with white or black partners, since they comprise 97 percent of all mixed-race couples, and focused on the level of poverty in the neighborhoods where those couples live.

“Poverty is associated with conditions such as criminal activity, poor health outcomes and acute educational disadvantages,” Gabriel said. “By looking at neighborhood poverty, it allows us to see how mixed-race couples are faring in broader systems of racial stratification.”

Gabriel’s analysis found that:

  • Mixed-race couples with one black partner live in neighborhoods with poverty levels of 21 percent on average, compared with average rates of just 9 percent for white couples. Among mixed-race couples with black partners, black-white couples lived in areas with the lowest poverty levels, around 16 percent.
  • Black-Latino and black-other couples (“other” indicates any ethnic or racial group besides white or Latino) live in neighborhoods where about 18 percent of residents were poor.
  • Of those mixed-race couples without black partners, white-other and white-Latino couples faced the lowest levels of neighborhood poverty, at around 10 percent.
  • Income levels varied broadly depending on whether couples included black or white partners — for example, income in the 10th percentile hovered between $15,000 and $18,000 annually for couples with one black partner, compared with $25,000 to $27,000 for couples that did not include blacks.

Gabriel also sought to find the levels of neighborhood poverty that mixed-race couples encountered in the areas they moved to. “The assumption [here] is that if you can avoid a poor neighborhood, you’re going to try to,” he said, explaining his rationale.

But among couples with similar levels of income and education, Gabriel discovered that those with black partners moved to neighborhoods with higher poverty than the areas where white couples tended to move. The findings, he said, suggest that racial and ethnic discrimination is present within the U.S. housing market.

As of 2010, mixed-race married couples in the United States, made up nearly 10 percent of the country’s married households, up from around 3 percent in 1980. Despite this growth and an increased acceptance of mixed-race unions, Gabriel said his research underscores the persistent disparity between whites and blacks in American society.

“What this says is that while marriage between different racial and ethnic groups has increased over time, there are still gaps between whites and blacks in general,” he said. “Mixed-race couples are a barometer to judge relationships between whites and blacks, with whites tending to have the most advantaged outcomes and blacks the most disadvantaged ones.”