Protective Effects of Maternal Education against Low Birth Weight Deliveries: Blacks’ Diminished Returns

Shervin Assari


Background: Racial and economic disparities in low birth weight (LBW) deliveries is among the most well-established differences between Blacks and Whites. As LBW is an established risk factor for chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes, it is particularly important to understand drivers of racial and economic disparities in LBW deliveries in urban areas. Aims: Built on the Minorities’ Diminished Returns framework, which argues that educational attainment generates fewer positive health outcomes for Black than White Americans, we conducted this study with three aims: 1) to test the association between mothers’ educational attainment and LBW of babies born in urban areas, 2) to compare Blacks and Whites for the effect of mothers’ educational attainment on LBW, and 3) to test whether LBW is predictive of future chronic diseases 15 years later. Methods: Data came from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being / included a random sample of births in cities larger than 200,000 population. For the aims 1 and 2, we analyzed data of 2,922 births to Black (n = 2,146) or White (n = 776) mothers. For aim 3, we analyzed data of a subsample of 1,604 Black or White newborns who were followed to age 15. The presence or absence of chronic diseases was determined at age 15. Logistic regression was used for data analysis. Results: Maternal educational attainment was inversely associated with LBW overall. We, however, found a significant interaction between maternal educational attainment and race, suggesting that the inverse association between maternal education and LBW is weaker for Black than White babies. At the same time, LBW increased the odds of chronic disease 15 years later. Conclusions: Diminished returns of maternal educational attainment contribute to racial disparities in LBW, which in turn contributes to future racial inequalities in chronic diseases in urban settings. That is, smaller protective effects of maternal education on reducing LBW for Black than White children contribute to the high prevalence of chronic diseases among adolescents in urban settings. Health disparities are not just due to racial differences in socioeconomic status but also diminishing returns of socioeconomic status indicators such as education for racial and ethnic minorities. Research should study contextual factors that reduce Blacks’ ability to translate their human capital to health outcomes in urban settings.

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