California’s demographics are steadily changing. According to the most recent state budget, Latinos became the state’s largest ethnic group last March, making up 39 percent of the population.

Among children, the shift is even more pronounced. In 1990, 35 percent of the state’s children were Latino. By 2010, that number had risen to 51 percent, where it’s more or less projected to remain for the next 20 years, since the Latino birthrate has slowed.

In a sense, California is already living the national future. Currently, one in four U.S. kids is Latino. But the proportion of Latino children is projected to pull even with that of white kids in 2050 in the United States.

What does this shift mean for children’s health in the state? While they may have reached majority status, Latino children still routinely face challenges to accessing care and healthy environments that their white peers don’t.

That much was reinforced last week in a new study, commissioned by the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, that identifies large disparities between the health profiles of white children and those of Latino kids in Spanish-speaking homes.

For example, parents of nearly 92 percent of white children reported them as having excellent or very good health; that figure drops to 55 percent for Latinos in Spanish-language homes. (Interestingly, for Latinos in English-speaking homes, the percentage is much closer to whites at 83 percent.)

The explanation for poorer health and health access for children in Spanish-speaking households comes from what researchers refer to as the “social determinants of health.” For Latino children, such obstacles to good health are more pronounced in homes where Spanish predominates, as the report explains:

Poverty and its associated stressors have significant impacts on a child’s overall health. These factors are more likely among Latino families with Spanish primary language. In addition, multiple studies suggest that Latino children may have more adverse environmental exposures than white children, due to poorer housing and parental working conditions that may lead to higher incidences of diseases such as asthma. Food insecurity and living in unsafe neighborhoods or neighborhoods lacking amenities such as parks may also impact health. Finally, Latino children, especially those with Spanish primary language, have poorer access to quality health care services that might improve their health.

There’s been growing awareness in recent years, backed by troves of data, that the neighborhoods in which people live profoundly influence diet, exercise options, access to health care, stress levels and life expectancy. And Latino children are more likely to live in neighborhoods where those options range from bad to worse. Another report released last month on “America’s Hispanic Children” summarized the problem even more succinctly:

America’s Latino children disproportionately live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, where poor housing, poor schools and crime further threaten their well being.

One of the recurring themes in the recent study, conducted by researchers at the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, is that Latino children from primarily Spanish-speaking families face steeper challenges than other Latinos. The report estimates one in four Spanish-speaking households in California is “linguistically isolated” (defined as a household in which no one over 13 is fluent in English).

The language barrier makes it harder for parents to navigate the health system when their kids need medical care, and it makes it twice as likely such kids are uninsured (nearly 11 percent) compared with Latino kids in English-speaking households (5 percent).

Out of the 370,000 Latino children in California who lack insurance, 280,000 are from primarily Spanish-speaking households. While language barriers hold back some parents, still others may fail to enroll their children in coverage for fear that their family’s mixed-immigration status might be revealed, making them vulnerable to deportation.

The causes of the health disparities afflicting Latino children defy easy policy fixes. Addressing poverty, unsafe neighborhoods and language barriers are long-term projects at best. But the report does outline some more practicable policy recommendations, including:

  • Invest in community health centers in Latino neighborhoods.
  • Connect more Latino families to benefits such as food stamps, school nutrition and Medicaid programs.
  • Promote translation help and other services that make it easier for Spanish-speaking parents to navigate the health care system.

Finally, the report urges policymakers to invest in early childhood education and parenting programs, which have been shown to have lasting health and character-building benefits for poor kids, regardless of their racial or ethnic backgrounds.

This article is courtesy of the USC Annenberg Reporting on Health collaborative, which is funded by The California Endowment.

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