For men of color, health problems linked to location

By Viji Sundaram and Poornima Weerasekara New America Media | Last updated: Jul 28, 2010 - 9:51:07 PM

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Graphic: MGN Online
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - Black and Latino boys and young men—six to 25 years old—in California are twice as likely to have health problems as their Caucasian counterparts. The bulk of those problems are related to the neighborhoods they live in, according to recent research findings.

The California Endowment, one of the largest health foundations in the country, funded the research, titled “Healthy Communities Matter: The Importance of Place to the Health of Boys of Color.”

It combines collective research from the RAND Corporation, PolicyLink, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice and the Department of Emergency Medicine at Drexel University.

And even though each research outfit worked independently of the other, “we found there was consistency” in their findings, noted Robert Phillips, director of health and human services for The California Endowment.

“The things we expected were the (health) outcomes,” Mr. Phillips went on to say. “But what we didn't expect was the correlation between the outcomes and the actual place. The place actually mattered to health more than the race of the kids.”

RAND investigators found that Black and Latino children are 3.4 times more likely than White children to live in poverty, and, “on many dimensions,” poverty is generally harsher for Black and Latino children, especially if they live in poor neighborhoods. In 2006, 35 percent of Black children and 28 percent of Latino children lived in poverty, compared to 11 percent of White children.

They noted that living in areas with such disadvantages as a lack of access to healthy food, safe parks and good schools compounded the negative impact on health disproportionately for boys and men of color.

“Several studies have shown that the zip code you live in has a direct impact on the health outcomes of a community,” observed Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of California Center for Public Health Advocacy, a health policy think tank. Dr. Goldstein has done many studies on how poor neighborhoods contribute to poor health outcomes, including obesity and diabetes, among children.

A 2008 study of 100 large U.S. metropolitan areas conducted by Prof. Dolores Acevedo-Garcia from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that Black and Latino children “consistently” lived in more “disadvantaged” neighborhoods. It noted that racial and ethnic segregation had resulted in children of color experiencing “double jeopardy”—living in both a poor family and a poor community. This amplified the effects of poverty on their health.

California poverty rates, according to researchers, are associated with family structure, parental education and parental work status. In California, Black mothers are two times more likely than White mothers to have less than a high school diploma, while Latino mothers are 10 times more likely than White mothers to have less than a high school education, RAND researchers found.

Researchers pointed out that Black and Latino boys and young men are disproportionately affected by such forms of trauma and adversity as violence, poverty, unemployment and incarceration, which create emotional pain and distress and, over time, diminish their coping mechanism. That makes them more likely to act out in a variety of ways that could land them in trouble.

Susan Eaton, research director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at the Harvard Law School, noted that public school educators in California suspended more than 770,000 students in 2007. A disproportionate percentage of them were Latinos and Blacks. In the 2002-03 school year, Black students who represented eight percent of the state's public school enrollment accounted for 19 percent of out-of-school suspensions.

“If a student is suspended from school, there is a high possibility that he may drop out later on,” Mr. Eaton said. “This triggers a chain of events that (could) lead to incarceration of youth.”

Rachel Davis, managing director of the Oakland-based non-profit Prevention Institute that works to reduce gang violence, observed, “Research in certain low-income urban areas have found that young people in the 12 to 16 age group had post-traumatic stress levels equal to Iraqi veterans. This is a critical issue that usually goes unnoticed and untreated,” she said.

She added that crowding, noise, the lack of safe parks and the lack of constructive social networks contributed to worse mental health among children from poorer neighborhoods.

Researchers also highlighted the need to integrate treating trauma and preventing it into the current health care system.

Rachel Davis stressed the need for a collaborative effort between schools, public health and economic development agencies, in addition to law enforcement, to prevent violence, which is a key factor in the poor health of Latino and Black men.

“Right now, most of the public health initiatives feel fragmented,” she said.

Joe Brooks, vice president for civic engagement at PolicyLink, said that there was a lack of public will to address issues facing boys and men of color.

To make matters worse, “the media and other institutions have painted a picture of young men and boys of color as being social predators involved in crimes and gangs and the underground economy,” Mr. Brooks lamented.

Researchers concluded that although the odds were stacked against boys and men of color, the situation could be remedied. “We found the problems are large, but not intractable,” Mr. Phillips said.

Mr. Phillips said the new research will help The California Endowment's 10-year building healthy communities initiative. The non-profit is hoping to improve health outcomes in young men and boys of color in 14 California communities, including East Oakland and Richmond.