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Can Race, Immigration Status Help Predict Child Well-being?


Now we look at the way immigration and race play into the health and well-being of American children. The Foundation for Child Development released a first-of-its-kind report this week. It found large disparities in education, health and economic status for kids in the U.S., based on both their race and the immigration status of their parents. It's called "Diverse Children: Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration in America's New Non-Majority Generation." And a co-author of the report, Donald Hernandez, joins us now. Welcome.

DONALD HERNANDEZ: Thank you very much.

HEADLEE: Are you sure that this is the first time this data has ever been assembled?

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely. In the past, people have studied children in immigrant families versus children in U.S.-born families, and research has also studied race ethnic groups - whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics. But no one has ever analyzed the data in a way that lets us look at all four groups by immigrant and nonimmigrant status at the same time.

HEADLEE: And what's the benefit of it? What do we learn by comparing all of these things for the first time?

HERNANDEZ: Well, this is important because the American population and child population, in particular, has reached a milestone. A majority of children born today are a minority, nonwhite children. We decided that it was time to really take a look at these individual groups, both immigrants and nonimmigrant groups, for specific race ethnic groups because these groups have very different experiences in America.

HEADLEE: Let's go macro first and then we'll bring it down to individual cases. But one of the things that struck me, especially when it comes to education, is that no children in the United States seem to be doing well in this particular category.

HERNANDEZ: That's absolutely right and it's very, very disturbing. One of my most surprising findings, in fact, was for fourth-grade students, looking at the NAEP scores, or the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is the nation's report card. What the NAEP finds is that reading and math test scores are very similar for children where English is not the primary language in the home and for children who are in homes where English is the primary language. This holds true for whites, Hispanics, blacks and Asians, as well.

In fact, more than half of children in each group are not reading proficiently in fourth grade. These low reading scores are especially important because third grade is a pivot point in our education system. Up to third grade, students and teachers spend most of their time in developing reading skills, but after third grade, they move away from learning to read. Instead, students use their reading skills to learn science, math and other subjects.

HEADLEE: And analytical. I mean, it's very difficult to teach a kid to be analytical and critical in their learning if they're not reading well.

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely, and if they're not reading well by fourth grade, because of this shift, they're much more likely to not graduate from high school. They're really at a strong disadvantage for the rest of the school years.

HEADLEE: It's not a great report for any American children, but let's break it down a little bit and go to some of the findings related to, specifically, Hispanic children, those who have immigrant parents. And when I say immigrant, we're talking about - whether they be documented or undocumented - all children who have a parent, at least one parent, not born in the U.S., right?

HERNANDEZ: That's right.

HEADLEE: Those who have immigrant parents are more likely, according to your study, to live in a two-parent home and be born healthy. But then, at age two, I think, the outcomes seem to kind of start falling. They're more likely to live in poverty and then they fare worse in education than Hispanic kids with both U.S.-born parents. What's happening here?

HERNANDEZ: Immigrants come to the U.S. with very strong families. Parents are working hard. They're likely to have secure employment. They're often working full-time, and they come healthy. They come to the U.S. with the diets of their native countries. Those diets are much healthier than junk food, fast food, that we get in the U.S. But over time, the longer that Hispanics spend in the U.S., the more they become Americanized to some of these unhealthy habits. So that's one thing that's going on. Over time, as well, Hispanic immigrants in particular have very high poverty rates and poverty has negative consequences for children, in terms of their health, in terms of their educational outcomes.

HEADLEE: You also found that Hispanic kids with immigrant parents are more likely to die between the ages of one and 19. What is killing these kids? Is it lack of healthcare? Is it that they're living in dangerous neighborhoods?

HERNANDEZ: Poverty certainly contributes to this, as does the lack of healthcare. Among Hispanic children in immigrant families, almost one in five do not have health insurance.

HEADLEE: So many families immigrate to the U.S. because they're thinking of the next generation, right? They want to build a better life for their kids and their grandkids, but the United States is not healthy for their children. I mean, that's really what it looks like to me from this report. Like, they might be better off either staying in their home country, or, if that's not possible, going somewhere else.

HERNANDEZ: Certainly, the health declines, but at the same time, there are educational opportunities in the U.S. for children of immigrants, and for all children. But we're not doing as well by our children, educationally, as we could. We're toward the bottom of rankings, in international rankings, in reading scores and mathematics scores, across the board, compared to most other developed countries. So that's a real problem, but there are things that we could do about that to improve our educational system.

HEADLEE: Let's take, for example, two kids. Say, for example, an African-American kid with both U.S.-born parents, and a Latino kid with both immigrant parents. According to your study, at least, it appears they have, in some ways, more in common than they have different.

HERNANDEZ: That's right. Those are the two groups that have the lowest level of well-being across a large range of indicators among the children we looked at. We looked at a total of eight groups. We looked at whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians, and then the immigrant and non-immigrant group in each. And across those eight groups, Hispanic children with immigrant parents and black children with U.S.-born parents were relatively similar on many indicators, and they were definitely at the bottom of the distribution in terms of well-being.

HEADLEE: Is that because of race or is it because of poverty?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I think it's a combination of both because, for some indicators, we see that all Hispanics and all blacks also have high poverty rates. So part of the problem, really, is racial ethnic discrimination in the U.S. We know we have segregated...

HEADLEE: Which keeps them in poverty.

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely. It makes it difficult for both blacks and Hispanics to get well-paid jobs, and of course parents need good jobs if they're going to lift their families out of poverty. Working hard is a good start, but you need to be paid well at the same time. There's also substantial housing segregation, which continues to be the case in the U.S., and because schools are locality-based and funding for schools comes mainly from local areas, poor neighborhoods also tend to have weak schools and we're not making the kind of investment that we could and should in these children.


HERNANDEZ: So discrimination certainly plays into it.

HEADLEE: So, I mean, you've mentioned a couple of things, segregation and education, for example. What are you hoping that people will do with this information to solve some of these issues?

HERNANDEZ: One thing that could be done is a bigger investment from the federal government in education, and there are very specific things that can be done. We need to have, in this country, universal voluntary pre-kindergarten for all three and four-year-old children. Right now, only about half of children are enrolled in early education, in pre-kindergarten programs, and the rates are even lower for Hispanics and especially Hispanic children in immigrant families.

Research has shown that high quality pre-kindergarten programs for three and four-year-olds is a very cost-effective way to increase the educational achievements of children. And that's - it's cost-effective because they're more likely to graduate from high school. Children are more likely to graduate from college. They're less likely to become dependent on welfare. They're more likely to get well-paid jobs and to pay taxes. It's critically important that we invest in all of our children.

HEADLEE: Donald Hernandez, co-author of the new report "Diverse Children: Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration in America's New Non-Majority Generation." He joined us here in Washington. Thank you so much.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure being here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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