Rhonda Jones-Webb, Ph.D., Q&A: Are blacks more likely to drink after losing a job?

Many people who lost a job during the recession turned to alcohol. But blacks who lost a job were more likely to have alcohol-related problems, according to new research from the University of Minnesota.

Rhonda J. Jones-Webb, a professor of epidemiology in the U’s School of Public Health, was lead author of a study in this month’s Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs concluding that blacks were more likely than whites or Hispanics to be stressed and depressed after loosing a job in the recession — and also more likely to drink heavily and abuse alcohol.

Rhonda Jones-Webb (Photo courtesy University of Minnesota)
Rhonda Jones-Webb 

“In general, the studies that have really assessed the impact of the recent recession haven’t looked at health effects,” said Jones-Webb. “Studies like this are so important in addressing that gap. I think the nation has moved on, but there are still people who haven’t recovered from the recession, and we need to be mindful and make sure they have the training to re-enter the workforce.”

More than 8 million jobs disappeared across the country during the recession, but the suffering was not evenly distributed. Blacks were more likely than whites to lose work, in part because black workers are clustered in low-wage industries with high turnover and in the shrinking government sector.

Black unemployment also lasted longer. In Minnesota, for example, African American unemployment didn’t start improving until late 2011, well after employers started hiring again en masse and a full year after white unemployment rates in Minnesota started to decline. The unemployment rate for black Minnesotans rose in 2015 while white and Hispanic jobless rates continued to drop. Black unemployment in Minnesota stood at 13.6 percent in February of this year, more than four times the white unemployment rate of 2.9 percent and three times the Hispanic rate of 4.5 percent.

In a recent interview, Jones-Webb’s answered questions about the study, titled “Effects of Economic Disruptions in the Economy on Alcohol Use and Problems: Why Do African Americans Fare Worse?”

How did you get interested in race and alcohol use?

My area of research is alcohol epidemiology and policy with an emphasis on race, class and neighborhood influences. I became interested in the area after working for many years in south central Los Angeles for a minority research-and-development center focused on mental health in the African American community. I was seeing drinking problems in large urban black communities, but at that time there just wasn’t much published around drinking patterns among African Americans. I wanted to address that gap in the research. This was in the late 1970’s and 80’s. We have come far from that period. My interest now is how do you increase awareness of alcohol related problems among African Americans and what can we do to reduce these problems in policy implementation? Some of my current work is looking at restrictions on types of beverages found in the inner city, like malt liquor.

You were a co-author of an earlier 2013 study that looked at job loss and alcohol problems during the recession. What did you find?

We used a national telephone survey — the National Alcohol Survey — that included over 5,000 people, including African Americans, Hispanics and whites. It was conducted in 2010, so a year after the recession had ended — ended on paper, anyway. Respondents were asked if they or someone in their household had been negatively affected by the recession and were asked follow-up questions about any job loss.

We found that African Americans and Hispanics were more likely than whites to report job loss during the recession. (Nine percent of African American respondents said they lost a job; 11.5 percent of Hispanics and 7 percent of whites).

We found that African Americans who reported job loss were more likely than white counterparts to report alcohol problems, such as drinking consequences and alcohol dependence. Drinking consequences would be problems in the family related to alcohol or problems related to work or health. Dependence is what we associate with heavy drinking and alcoholism.

Were you surprised?

I had conducted an earlier study that looked at drinking and depression and anxiety. Blacks were more likely to use drinking as a way of coping compared to whites, so no, I wasn’t surprised.

What does your most recent study show?

That earlier study highlighted how exposure to economic downturn can differ among racial and ethnic groups, but it didn’t look at why blacks who lost their jobs in the recession reported more alcohol related problems. We found job loss was associated with heavy drinking to the point of drunkenness in whites, but greater in blacks. And we found that job loss led to psychological stress and depressive symptoms in general, but led to increased drunkenness in blacks only.

Are you saying blacks were more stressed and depressed after losing a job than Hispanics or whites? Was losing a job experienced differently by blacks?

Yes, and that in turn led to increased drinking for blacks only.

In your study, you state that black workers may perceive that they have less control over their future employment, and that could lead to an increased sense of distress. Did your study look at why?

I think there are a few reasons. One is the reality of “last hired first fired.” There are also just higher unemployment rates in general among African Americans than other groups. So when you get a job and then lose it, it has more of an effect, given the difficulty of finding a job in the first place.

The third reason is fear of not having resources to cope with a job loss. Other studies, for example, have found that social support from friends and family minimizes the stress of job loss on whites, but that wasn’t the case for blacks. Prior studies have shown that blacks are less likely than whites to receive family support, especially economic support from families but also emotional support.

What about Hispanics?

It’s interesting, because it really differed from whites and blacks. Recession-related job loss was related to increased drunkenness for whites and African Americans, but that was not the case for Hispanics. One explanation may be that Hispanics may have family and other support systems that buffer the effect of job loss.

How about Native Americans or Asians?

They were included in the phone survey, but the numbers were just too small to do subgroup analyses.

Is there a public health cost to society as a result of alcohol abuse following job loss and financial stress?

There is a huge price tag. It leads to a loss of work, increased health care costs and problems in family functioning, because someone has a drinking problem.

Is there a way to recognize people who might be more vulnerable and cushion people who are laid off from this downward spiral?

I think that’s the great question. I think it involves outreach on the part of community organizations and making people aware of resources that might be available to them should they lose their job. Ultimately, the source of the problem is the lack of employment and lack of income. We should have policies in place to help people re-enter the workforce. That might include job training and retraining. And certain groups like African Americans might need more services. I also think working with churches is a good vehicle for getting the word out.

Economic disruption is becoming more and more of a reality in our society, and economic disruption can have profound health effects on the population. It’s important to identify which groups are particularly vulnerable to increased drinking during a recession and where we target our resources.

Pioneer Press