Poor childhood health contributes to lower socioeconomic status in adulthood, and in turn, adults with lower socioeconomic status end up contributing poor health outcomes to their children. Health professionals and policymakers must promote the physical and psychological well-being of immigrant children to avoid a cycle where economically disadvantaged adults pass on health risks to their children, according to a 2011 report from the Immigrant Children issue of The Future of Children.
Foreign-born children who immigrate to the U.S. usually exhibit lower health risks than their native peers. However, the health outcomes of immigrant children usually worsen over time.
For example, researchers have discovered that the rate of childhood obesity is lower among foreign-born youth, but that the likelihood that an immigrant is overweight or obese increases as the children become adults. Diet significantly contributes to excessive weight among children and adolescents. As immigrants become more acculturated to U.S. society, they adopt American diets, which usually include greater amounts of fat, processed meats, snack foods, and fast foods than the diets in their countries of origin.
A study using the 2001 California Health Interview Survey found that Asian and Latino foreign-born youth drank fewer sodas and ate more fruits and vegetables than non-Hispanic white U.S.-born children. But for Latinos, fruit and vegetable consumption decreased and their soda consumption increased over time, putting them at a higher risk for obesity.
Health care access is vital for the overall well-being of immigrant children, yet they are less likely to have health insurance or easy access to care because of fear of being deported or detained. Most immigrant children without health care seek treatment only when a problem has become severe.
According to the report, 56 percent of children with two immigrant parents and 66 percent of children with one foreign-born and one U.S.-born parent do not enroll for public health insurance even though they are eligible.
The report suggests that health care researchers and policymakers improve their understanding of the plights of immigrant children in order to know what tools, such as better access to medical care, will aid them the most.
Researchers also cited that having doctors who are culturally competent and respectful of the values of immigrant families are extremely important in encouraging these populations to feel comfortable participating in health care.
The Future of Children is a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution. It aims to translate social science research about children and youth into information that is useful to policymakers, practitioners, grant-makers, advocates, the media, and students of public policy.