The Health and Well-Being of Young Children of Immigrants
Document date: February 08, 2005
Released online: February 08, 2005
The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.
Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).
This report was funded by generous grants from the Foundation for Child Development and Annie E. Casey Foundation.
This report focuses on the health and well-being of young children under 6 in immigrant families, those with at least one parent born outside the United States. Eight key themes emerge from the research:
- Children of immigrants are a large share of the young child population. Children of immigrants are the fastest growing component of the child population (Hernandez 1999). While
immigrants are 11 percent of the total U.S. population, children of immigrants make up 22 percent of the 23.4 million children under 6 in the United States. They make up a larger share of the population under 6 than the population age 6 to 17 (20 percent). Policies, then, that advantage or disadvantage younger childrensuch as child care and early educationwill have far-reaching impacts on children of immigrants. Correlatively, policies affecting young children and their families will increasingly be judged by their effects on the health, well-being, and school readiness of children of immigrants.
- Most young children of immigrants are citizens living in mixed-status families. Almost all (93 percent) children of immigrants under 6 are citizens. Most live in mixed-status families with one or more noncitizen parents. These legal and illegal noncitizen parents may be reluctant to
approach public or publicly funded institutions for services despite their children's citizenship and eligibility (Fix and Zimmermann 1999). As a result, children of immigrants use public benefits less often than children of natives, despite higher rates of economic hardship.
- Over one-quarter of young children of immigrants have undocumented parents. Twenty-nine percent of children of immigrants under 6 live in families with one or more undocumented parents. No matter how Congress resolves the current debate over providing legal status for undocumented immigrants, the results will have a major impact on large numbers of immigrant families with young children.
- More young children of immigrants than natives live in two-parent families. Children of
immigrants under 6 are more likely to live in two-parent families than natives (86 versus 75 percent). They are also more likely to live in two-parent families with low incomes (50 versus 26 percent), but less likely to live in families with two working parents (43 versus 50 percent).
- Many young children of immigrants live in families with low incomes, have parents with low education levels and limited English proficiency, and interact less often with their parents. All these factors are associated with low performance in school.
- Fifty-six percent of young children of immigrants live in low-income families (families with incomes less than twice the federal poverty level); 64 percent of foreign-born children of immigrants live in low-income families.
- Twenty-nine percent of young children of immigrants have parents with less than a high
school education (versus 8 percent of children of natives).
- Fifty-eight percent have one or more limited English proficient (LEP) parents.
- Seventy-four percent of young children of immigrants are read to by parents at least three
times a week, compared with 89 percent of children of natives.
- Young children of immigrants have higher levels of economic hardship but lower use of
benefits than children of natives. Children of immigrants are substantially more likely to be
poor and to experience food- and housing-related hardship. Fifty-six percent of young children
of immigrants are low-income versus 40 percent of young children of natives. At the same time,
low-income children of natives under 6 are twice as likely to receive Food Stamps and more than
twice as likely to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) as young low-income
children of immigrants.
One explanation for lower levels of public benefit use is that many young noncitizen children are ineligible for federal means-tested public benefit programs like TANF, food stamps, and Medicaid. Almost half of young noncitizen children are undocumented and are, as a result, ineligible for virtually all benefits except emergency Medicaid. At the same time, legal noncitizen children are also ineligible for TANF and Medicaid in most states. Moreover, many eligible citizen children with noncitizen parents do not participate in these programs because the parents are unaware that their children are eligible or afraid of the consequences of benefit receipt for their legal status and citizenship (Rodriguez, Hagan, and Capps 2004). Because TANF is often the gateway to other benefits, children of immigrants may also be excluded from such work supports as child care subsidies.
- Children of immigrants are more likely to have fair or poor health and to lack health insurance or a usual source of health care. Young low-income children of immigrants remain twice as likely to be uninsured as those of natives (22 versus 11 percent), despite a substantial increase in the coverage of low-income children of immigrants through Medicaid and other public programs between 1999 and 2002 (from 45 to 57 percent). Seven percent of young children of immigrants are reported in fair or poor health by their parents, over twice the rate for children of natives (3 percent). More than twice as many young children of immigrants as natives lack a usual source of health care (8 versus 3 percent).
- Children of immigrants are more often in parental care and less often in center-based child care. Children of immigrants under 6 are more likely to receive child care from parents (53 versus 34 percent for children of natives) and less likely to be in center-based care (17 versus 26 percent). Use of center-based care is lowest among children of immigrants whose parents have little education. These differences in use can be partially explained by family structure, low incomes, patterns of work participation, and, perhaps, by differing propensity for care (Capizzano and Adams 2003). Access issues such as cost, lack of subsidies, language barriers, and availability of nearby care may also be associated with lower use of center-based care. While our data show lower participation in center-based care among children of immigrants, little is known about the reasons for these patterns (Takanishi 2004). When only families with two working parents are considered, however, the gap between children of immigrants and natives narrows somewhat.
Child care, especially in center-based settings, may benefit a child's early development and
socialization and ease the transition from home to school (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network 2000). Child care may also help children of immigrants adapt to a new culture and language, and overcome linguistic isolation and other barriers (Brandon 2004). At the same time, child care centers can be institutions that provide adult education, improve parenting skills, increase family access to health care and other benefits, and link parents to the communities in which they live.
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