Report's findings tell `tale of two Marylands'

Study shows disparities between African-American, white children

March 01, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

While the overall well-being of Maryland's children continues to improve, drastic disparities persist between African-American and white youth across the state, according to a report released yesterday.

For example, although the state's infant mortality rates declined 14 percent from 2004 and 2005 -- reaching the lowest rate in 20 years -- in 2005 a black baby was three times more likely to die before his or her first birthday than a white baby, according to Maryland Kids Count, an annual measure of education, health and safety administered by state advocacy groups and agencies.

"We have been on notice for years and years that racial disparities are significant and persistent," said Sharon Rubinstein, a spokeswoman for Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore, which took the lead in the study. "So part of the news is that the news hasn't changed. And that's bad news."

The findings illustrate "a tale of two Marylands," said researchers, who hope the data will force policy-makers to combat the racial gaps.

"It's a very complex issue and so much research has been done to get a handle on why the gaps endure, even when the numbers are getting better for everyone," said Jennean Everett-Reynolds, director of research for Advocates for Children and Youth. "But we need to be more intentional about really looking at the mechanisms at work behind these numbers. ... We are very serious about bringing this up as an issue and keeping it in the spotlight."

Experts have tried for years to understand why certain racial disparities persist in health, even when all other factors remain the same.

For example, some medical studies have compared the rates of low birth-weight babies born to black and white women. Even though they compared women of similar socioeconomic status and identical behaviors during pregnancy, such as being nonsmokers, results revealed that black women still had a higher incidence of babies born with low birth weight, said Everett-Reynolds.

"Why they persist is one of the most vexing questions that we face in public health and medicine," said Thomas A. LaVeist, director of the Center for Health Disparities Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"The real answer is that we don't know," he said. "It's an area where all of the obvious things have been looked at -- health behavior, access to health care, and none of them have explained racial disparities in infant mortality rates."

The Kids Count findings also show black teens are twice as likely to be victims of homicide, accidents or suicides than white teens, even as the overall violent death rate fell by 13 percent since 2000.

Around the state, overall figures show improvements in various areas. Among the findings: half of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions saw a drop in child poverty since 2000; the percentage of students statewide graduating high school on time increased from 82 percent to 85 percent from 2000 to 2006; and third-graders made gains in reading proficiency.

And Baltimore, which tends to lag behind other jurisdictions in many areas, experienced a nearly 30 percent decrease in juvenile nonviolent crime arrests since 2000, according to the report.

The study also noted one measure where the racial disparity was closing, if only slightly. The teen pregnancy rate for African-American girls declined by 29 percent from 2000 to 2005, while the rate for white girls decreased by 17 percent. The figures reflect state and national trends.

"I believe in celebrating positive change," said Everett-Reynolds, "but it's important to keep it in perspective."

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