Racial disparities in low birthweight and the contribution of residential segregation: a multilevel analysis

Soc Sci Med. 2006 Dec;63(12):3013-29. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.08.017. Epub 2006 Sep 25.


This study investigates the geography of racial disparities in low birthweight in New York City by focusing on racial residential segregation and its effect on the risk of low birthweight among African-American infants and mothers. This cross-sectional multilevel analysis uses birth records at the individual level (n=96,882) and racial isolation indices at the census tract or neighborhood level (n=2095) to measure their independent and cross-level effects on low birthweight. This study found that residential segregation and neighborhood poverty operate at different scales to increase the risk of low birthweight. At the neighborhood scale residential segregation is positively and significantly associated with low birthweight, after controlling for individual-level risk factors and neighborhood poverty. Residential segregation explains neighborhood variation in low birthweight means and race effects across census tracts, which cannot be accounted for by neighborhood poverty alone. At the individual scale-increasing levels of residential segregation does not significantly reduce or exacerbate individual-level risk factors for low birthweight; whereas increasing levels of neighborhood poverty significantly eliminates the race effect and reduces the protective effect of being foreign-born on low birthweight, after controlling for other individual-level risk factors and residential segregation. These findings are contradictory to previous health research that shows protective mechanisms associated with ethnic density in local areas. It is likely that structural factors underlying residential segregation, i.e., racial isolation, impose additional stressors on African-American women that may offset or disguise positive attributes associated with ethnic density. However, as poverty is concentrated within these neighborhoods, differences between races in low birthweight cease to exist. This study demonstrates that residential segregation and neighborhood poverty are important determinants of racial disparity in low birthweight in New York City.

MeSH terms

  • African Americans*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Geography
  • Health Status
  • Health Status Indicators
  • Humans
  • Infant, Low Birth Weight*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • New York City / epidemiology
  • Poverty / ethnology
  • Prejudice*
  • Residence Characteristics*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Class*
  • Social Environment
  • Social Justice*
  • Socioeconomic Factors