Is Segregation Bad for Your Health? The Case of Low Birth Weight

Ellen, I.G.
Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs 2000, pp. 203-229.

This paper explores the relationship between racial segregation and racial disparities in the prevalence of low birth weight. The paper has two parallel motivations. First, the disparities between black and white mothers in birth outcomes are large and persistent. In 1996, 13 percent of infants born in the United States to black mothers weighed less than 2,500 grams (5.5 pounds, or low birth weight), compared with just 6.3 percent of all infants born to white mothers. And the consequences may be grave. Low birth weight is a major cause of infant mortality and is associated with greater childhood illness and such developmental disorders as cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, epilepsy, chronic lung disease, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder. 1 Given the strong connection between race and residence in this country, it seems plausible that residential location may shape these differentials.

Second, while there is a growing literature on the costs of racial segregation, it has largely focused on economic outcomes such as education and employment. This paper aims to develop a fuller understanding of the costs of racial segregation by considering birth outcomes as well as such behaviors as tobacco and alcohol use among pregnant mothers. As Glaeser emphasizes (in his paper in this volume), information, ideas, and values are often transmitted through face-to-face interaction, and thus their transmission may be blocked by segregation. This includes information related to job openings and may include information and norms related to behavior and care during pregnancy.

Adopting in large part the methodology of David Cutler and Edward L. Glaeser, the paper thus examines how levels of racial segregation affect the birth outcomes of black mothers. 2 It examines influences on both black and nonblack mothers in an attempt to identify the differential effect of segregation on black mothers.

Wagner Faculty