Thursday, March 13, 2008

Study: Local Latino children live worse than white peers

Melissa McEver | The Monitor
March 12, 2008

McALLEN - Local Latino children tend to live in worse neighborhoods than white children, and so are less likely to grow up healthy, according to a study released this week.

In the March/April issue of medical policy journal Health Affairs, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health conclude the McAllen metropolitan area is one of the country's five worst regions for the proportion of Latino children who live in "low-opportunity" neighborhoods.

Low-opportunity neighborhoods tend to hold fewer grocery stores with fresh produce, poorer schools, fewer parks and playgrounds and higher crime rates than high-opportunity neighborhoods, said lead researcher Dolores Acevedo-Garcia. Those factors contribute to children's overall health as they grow up, she said.

"Neighborhood conditions are really the foundation of healthy development," said Acevedo-Garcia, associate professor at Harvard. "There's research that says living in poor neighborhoods can affect a number of health outcomes."

The researchers used data from the 2000 Census in the study, comparing the distribution of children of different ethnicities to certain neighborhood quality indicators such as poverty rates, rental rates and unemployment.

Rates of smoking, drug use, other risky behaviors and obesity all are higher among people who have grown up in impoverished neighborhoods, Acevedo-Garcia said.

A study that appeared in last month's Pediatrics reinforced the theory that poverty impacts children's health. It suggested children who fall at 200 percent or below the federal poverty level, or who live in "unsafe" neighborhoods, are less likely to be in "very good" health.

The Health Affairs study singles out the McAllen area because the disparity between the neighborhoods in which Latino children live and the neighborhoods in which white children live is great, Acevedo-Garcia said. It does not mention the Brownsville-Harlingen metropolitan area.

Poverty rates in the McAllen area are high for children of all races, but the poorest white children still live in better neighborhoods than Hispanic children, Acevedo-Garcia said.

Some local health officials questioned whether the study's data took into account recent improvements in Hidalgo County and the Rio Grande Valley.

"We have some poor areas ... but I feel there's been some inroads made," said Eduardo Olivarez, CEO of Hidalgo County Health Department. The Children's Health Insurance Program and Medicaid have enrolled more children and improved access to health care, and neighborhoods are making infrastructure improvements, he said.

Dr. Brian Smith - regional director of Texas Department of State Health Services' Region 11, which includes the Valley - said county leaders should work on finding ways to make impoverished communities healthier, and that neighborhoods ought to get involved, too.

For example, he said, neighborhood leaders could organize an old-fashioned paseo for the whole community to take a walk together.

"Everyone needs to get together and drive out the more dangerous elements," he said.

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