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The Educational Gradient in Health Among Children in Immigrant Families

Abstract

Educational inequality in the health of US children—what social scientists refer to as the “educational gradient” in health—is present at birth for virtually every marker of health and increases throughout childhood. However, a puzzling contradiction to this pattern has been observed among the growing population of youth in immigrant families. Some evidence suggests an ambiguous relationship between education and health among immigrant families, with a flat relationship between maternal education and maternal health behaviors and children’s birth outcomes, and a stronger relationship as children become adolescents. Does an educational gradient in health emerge among children in immigrant families during childhood and adolescence? To date, we lack a prospective examination of how the gradient changes from birth throughout childhood and adolescence among this population. Moreover, while the dominant explanation for a weaker gradient among children with immigrant parents centers on the family setting, we know little about family-level dynamics among the same immigrant families as children age. Using national, longitudinal data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, we examine the association between maternal education and children’s health (measured by mothers’ ratings) over the early life course (birth through age 15) among children of immigrants and children of native-born parents and consider whether changes in children’s economic status and family composition contribute to the educational gradient, or lack thereof, in child health. Analyses reveal that: (1) maternal education is strongly predictive of health, even among children of immigrants; (2) immigrant status does not appear to be protective for health within educational groups, as evidenced by poorer health among children of immigrants whose mothers have the lowest level of education, as compared to children of natives; (3) children in the least-educated immigrant families are experiencing better health trajectories as they age than children in similar native-born families; and (4) accounting for household economic conditions and family composition does not reduce the size of the education gradient over time among children of immigrants.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    It is also important to point out that, though race is highly correlated with socioeconomic resources, abundant evidence documents an independent association between race and health. At all levels of socioeconomic status, black children are more likely than both their white and nonwhite peers to be born with a low birthweight, to have asthma and other chronic physical health conditions, and to be overweight or obese (Currie 2005; Lu and Halfon 2003; McDaniel et al. 2006).

  2. 2.

    For example, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort tracks children from birth only through kindergarten entry. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) Children and Young Adults collects information on children born only to NLSY79 mothers.

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Jackson, M.I., Kihara, T. The Educational Gradient in Health Among Children in Immigrant Families. Popul Res Policy Rev 38, 869–897 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-019-09558-7

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Keywords

  • Early life
  • Early childhood
  • Health
  • Child development
  • Life course
  • Stratification
  • Social class
  • Maternal education
  • Socioeconomic status