The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Divorced, In Default, and Depressed

Consequent to the economic meltdown of 2008, millions of Americans found themselves in default on their houses, with hundreds of thousands actually losing their homes.  Not surprisingly, in a study recently completed at the Universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and North Texas, researchers report that many of those caught in this tidal wave of default and foreclosure are suffering from poor physical and mental health.  Nor should it astonish anyone that a disproportionate number of those caught in this destructive maelstrom are divorced and separated.

To determine the effects of housing strain and mortgage foreclosure on health, the researchers surveyed 798 residents of Arizona, California, Florida, and Nevada—the four states with the highest rates of foreclosure in July 2008.  The data so obtained reveal a strong linkage between housing strain and both physical and mental health.  “Homeowners in default or foreclosure reported the poorest health status of any housing group on multiple metrics,” the researchers report, “differing most from homeowners with no housing strain.  Owners with moderate strain and renters reported intermediate health outcomes.”

More specifically, reports of “fair” or “poor” health come from less than one-tenth (9.2%) of home owners feeling “no strain” in meeting mortgage obligations, while such reports come from almost one quarter (22.9%) of those in default or in foreclosure.  Reports of fair or poor health come from about one-eighth (16.5%) of renters.

A similar pattern prevails for psychological well-being: reports of “serious psychological distress” come from less than one-fiftieth (1.4%) of home owners experiencing no housing strain, while such reports come from over one-fifth (21.4%) of those in default or foreclosure.  Reports of serious psychological distress come from slightly less than one-tenth (8.8%) of renters.

Statistical analysis establishes the differences in well-being separating homeowners feeling no housing strain from those in default or foreclosure as highly significant (p < 0.001 for both physical health and psychological distress).  But further statistical analysis reveals that those in default or foreclosure are decidedly less likely than secure homeowners to be in an intact marriage.  The researchers report that, compared to homeowners feeling no housing strain, “homeowners in default or foreclosure were less likely to be married” (p < 0.05).  Among homeowners reporting no financial strain in their housing status, about four-fifths (78%) were married and only one tenth (8.8%) were divorced or separated.  In contrast, among home owners in default or foreclosure, only two-thirds (66.7 %) were married, almost one-fifth (19.8%) were divorced or separated, and slightly over one-tenth (11.5%) had never married.  Among renters in this study, about half (51%) were married, about one-third (33%) had never married, and about one-seventh (15%) were divorced or separated.

The researchers marvel at the frequency and severity of physical and mental health problems among those in default or foreclosure, noting that, “on many measures, homeowners in foreclosure had even poorer health than renters, who have previously been observed to be a disadvantaged group.”

The researchers understandably see in their findings evidence that “homeowners in default or foreclosure represent an identifiable high-risk group.”  But their study also identifies marital status as a dividing line between those at high risk and those at low risk not only for housing strain but also for all the physical and mental ills that come with that strain.  The researchers suggest that their study might justify “coordinated, affordable health and social services” for the “vulnerable population” found among homeowners.  But wise policymakers will recognize the need to shrink that vulnerable population by fostering more enduring marriages.

(Carolyn C. Cannuscio et al., “Housing Strain, Mortgage Foreclosure and Health in a Diverse Internet Sample,” Nursing Outlook 60.3 [2012]: 10.1016/j.outlook.2011.08.004.)