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BUILDING A HEALTHIER AMERICA: New Report Stresses Importance of Mother’s Education and Family’s Income to Child’s Health

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“However, it will be startling to most people to learn that children in middle-class families have worse health than children in wealthier families.”

Babies born to mothers with at least sixteen years of education are less likely to die before their first birthdays than babies born to mothers who have not finished high school, according to a new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America. The report, America’s Health Starts With Healthy Children: How Do States Compare?, ranks states on infant mortality and children’s health status based on key social factors, such as parental income and education level.

According to the report, infant mortality rates increase as the mother’s education level decreases. For example, the national infant mortality rate is 6.5 per one thousand live births, but the infant mortality rate rises to 7.8 per one thousand live births for babies born to mothers who lack a high school diploma. On the other end of the spectrum, the infant mortality rate is only 4.2 for babies born to mothers who completed sixteen or more years of education. However, the authors note that even that rate exceeds the 3.2 infant deaths per one thousand live births that researchers say should be attainable in every state.

“There is substantial unrealized health potential among children in this country, both for the nation overall and within every state,” says Susan Egerter, Ph.D., a lead author of the report. “Many health problems developed during childhood are linked to health problems that occur later in life. While access to medical care is clearly important, there is more to health than good medical care. Income and education matter.”

In some states, the infant mortality rate was higher, by as many as twelve deaths per one thousand live births, for babies born to mothers without a high school diploma. In North Dakota, for example, the infant mortality rate is 5.4 per one thousand live births among babies born to mothers who had at least sixteen years of education. But among mothers without a high school diploma, the mortality rate rises to a whopping 17.2 per one thousand live births. The report also notes that infant mortality rates are higher by up to five deaths per one thousand live births in some states among babies born to mothers who have thirteen to fifteen years of education.

Turning their attention to a child’s health after birth, the authors of the report say that children who live in households without a high school graduate are twice as likely to be in less-than-optimal health as children living with a high school graduate. They are more than four times as likely to be in less-than-optimal health than children living with someone who has completed some college. Currently, about one third of children nationwide live in households where no one has had schooling beyond high school.

According to the report, income levels also play a part in a child’s health. It finds that children in poor families (below 100 percent of the federal poverty level) were six times more likely to be in less-than-optimal health than children from higher-income families (at or above 400 percent of the federal poverty level). Additionally, it finds that children from middle-income families (200–399 percent of the federal poverty level) are more than twice as likely to be in less-optimal health.

“The public should not be shocked that children in poor families have worse health than children in better-off families,” said Paula Braveman, one of the authors of the report. “However, it will be startling to most people to learn that children in middle-class families have worse health than children in wealthier families.”

The complete report, which contains information for all fifty states and the District of Columbia, is available at http://www.commissiononhealth.org/Documents/ChildrensHealth_Chartbook.pdf.

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