UCLA researchers find health care inequalities adversely affect low-income youth
By Shruti Iyer
Oct. 30, 2020 8:26 p.m.
Low-income youth are more vulnerable to physical and mental illnesses which can lead to long-term health and socioeconomic impacts, a UCLA study found.
The study, published in Health Affairs, a health policy journal, measured children’s vulnerability in health development when they first start kindergarten, said Neal Halfon, the director of the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities and a co-author of the study.
The study found that children from low-income neighborhoods are more vulnerable to adverse health effects, including chronic illness, diabetes and depression, than children from higher-income neighborhoods.
Black children were the most vulnerable to potential physical and mental health ailments, followed by Latino children, white children, then Asian children, Halfon said.
The study also found that Black children, even with the highest income level, were equally or more vulnerable than Asian children living in low-income neighborhoods, Halfon said.
Efren Aguilar, the geographic information systems lead at the CHCFC and a co-author on the paper, said the disparities between racial groups are due to inequities within the health system.
“The US still suffers from significant persistent and highly racialized health inequities that are rooted in complex historical and social and structural factors,” Aguilar said.
Halfon said they collected data by asking kindergarten teachers to test their students on how prepared they are to start school, to gauge their vulnerability.
Aguilar said the test looked at physical health and well being, social competence, emotional maturity, language cognition development and general knowledge communication.
Even though early childhood development is recognized as a key factor in long-term health, there’s not much data about children before third grade, Halfon said.
“Even though there’s been this revolution of the importance of the early years, children during the early years are basically invisible,” Halfon said.
The study hopes to give communities information that they can use to take steps, such as providing preschool and childcare support, to make their living conditions better, Halfon added.
Alice Kuo, chief of Medicine-Pediatrics at UCLA, said a child’s development is tied to their parents’ lives.
Kuo said parents with stable incomes have lower stress levels at home, allowing them to spend more time with their children. However, parents who work multiple jobs to make ends meet may not have enough time to help the child with school or be able to pay for extra-curricular activities, which can adversely affect childhood development, she added.
Potential long-term effects of impaired development include unfinished education, lower lifetime earnings, higher interactions with law enforcement, substance abuse and domestic violence, Kuo said. These effects can induce a cycle of poverty that passes down each generation, she added.
“It is not because of the fact that they drop out (of high school) but the factors that cause kids to drop out of high school, puts them at risk for all these other challenges,” Kuo said.
The CHCFC has not been able to conduct a nationwide study because they have not received federal funding for the project, even though other countries have funded similar projects that collect data on early childhood development, Aguilar said.
“We don’t support family to the same extent that other countries do,” Kuo said.
Aguilar said he hopes the data will help with plans to eliminate inequities and prevent future health problems.
“It should drastically reduce health care costs (and) should include increased productivity,” Aguilar said. “And then ultimately diminish preventable human suffering and to begin to remedy the consequences of centuries that run remaining and unresolved and persistent racial injustice.”