A Very Good Place to Grow Up, for Almost Everyone
Many Children in Washington Enjoy Advantages in Health, Education and Other Factors, but Black Children Lag Behind

By Elizabeth Agnvall
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Washington region is one of the nation's best metropolitan areas for Hispanic, Asian and non-Hispanic white children, based on a study of health, housing, economic, crime and education data released last week by the Harvard School of Public Health. For black children, the D.C. area ranks about average on most factors, according to the study, titled "Children Left Behind: How Metropolitan Areas Are Failing America's Children."

The report, which compares living conditions for children in the country's 100 largest metropolitan areas, draws on a broad range of data that the authors spent five years compiling, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the data are available at http://www.diversitydata.org.

Overall in the D.C. area, non-Hispanic white kids fare the best on health measures, followed by Asian, Hispanic and black children, in that order.

As in the country's other major metropolitan areas, black and Hispanic children in the Washington region are more likely than non-Hispanic white children to be born prematurely, have low birth weights, have teenage mothers and have mothers who smoked during pregnancy -- all risks to long-term health. But the disparity between nonwhite children and white children on these measures is less than it is in many other metropolitan areas. In the Chicago area, for example, the rate of teen births was about seven times greater for blacks than non-Hispanic whites; in the Washington area, the ratio was less than 3 to 1.

"Here in D.C. we do have a lot of good government jobs and less discriminatory hiring practices than many other cities, but we still have intense racial and economic segregation for African Americans," said Barbara Krimgold, one of the report's authors and senior project director for the Center for the Advancement of Health, a partner in the Diversitydata.org project.

In the Washington area, roughly 11 percent of black infants had low birth weights (under 5.5 pounds) in 2001-02, according to the National Center for Health Statistics; according to the report, the Washington area scores better than nearly two-thirds of other metro areas on the standard, with a rank of 36 out of 100, going from best to worst. About 4 percent of non-Hispanic white infants, 5 percent of Hispanic infants and 6 percent of Asian infants in the Washington area also had low birth weights.

The rate of premature births (before 37 weeks of gestation) for blacks in the Washington area was about 14 percent. That put Washington's black population in 28th place, meaning more than two-thirds of other metro areas had a worse (higher) rate. The preterm birth rates for whites was just under 8 percent, for Asians 8.3 percent, and for Hispanics 1.5 percent. In Washington and other metro areas, Hispanic infants tend to be healthier than other minority babies -- nearly matching non-Hispanic white babies in birth weight, for example. But they don't maintain this initial health advantage, according to the study.

Nationwide, the study authors say, the picture for minority children is bleak. On most indicators such as poverty and parents' unemployment rate, black and Hispanic children were substantially worse off than white children, noted lead author Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, a demographer with the Harvard School of Public Health. Asian children generally fell somewhere in between.

The authors expected to see at least a segment of African American children and poor white children facing similar conditions, but there was almost no overlap between the two groups. Acevedo-Garcia said white children fared better across all income groups, showing that health and educational differences are more than a function of socioeconomic status.

"We are talking about entirely different worlds of opportunity across metro areas," she said.

Nathaniel Beers, medical director of the general pediatric clinic at Children's National Medical Center, said the report's inclusion of wealthy Maryland and Virginia suburbs in the Washington area distorts the picture some, raising the average salary, decreasing the poverty rate and increasing homeownership. The metro area's overall child poverty rate, for example, is about 9 percent, according to the report, compared with 32 percent for the city alone, according to the 2005 American Community Survey, collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Beers said lack of access to primary care providers, public transportation and even supermarkets limits opportunities for nonwhite children in the city. Gentrification, he said, may help, as long as it doesn't simply push minority children out of neighborhoods that are improving.

Besides government jobs, Beers attributed D.C. minority kids' relative advantage to such city initiatives as aggressive immunizations, programs aimed at limiting teen pregnancy, comprehensive sex education efforts and health clinics -- such as those run by Children's Hospital.

Policy initiatives that would help disadvantaged children, said the authors, include: early childhood development programs; increased affordable housing in suburbs; programs that help minorities buy homes in better neighborhoods; more-equitable funding of largely minority schools and more school integration. Krimgold offered additional suggestions, including temporary assistance to needy families, tracking of minority women during pregnancy and universal health insurance.

"There are solutions for diluting the intensity of racial and economic segregation in this country," Krimgold said. "It shouldn't be that minorities in the U.S. live in different worlds than white children." ยท

Elizabeth Agnvall is a frequent contributor to the Health section. Comments:health@washpost.com.

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