Study finds historic redlining led to present-day disparate birth outcomes

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Jaap Vermeulen/Creative Commons
According to a recent study observing populations in Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco, there is a higher prevalence of preterm birth in neighborhoods that have been redlined. (Photo by Jaap Vermeulen under CC BY 2.0.)

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A recent study led by UC Berkeley researchers found that discriminatory housing policies in the past have led to disparities in birth outcomes across California.

Starting in the 1930s, many banks in the United States denied loans to neighborhoods based on racial demographics and the perceived investment risk of borrowers in a process known as redlining, according to the study. The team of researchers, led by Anthony Nardone, UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program candidate, found that redlining is associated with adverse birth effects in populations studied in Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco.

“The underlying motivation of the study was, increasingly, people are trying to understand how legacies of structural racism affect health,” said Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and in the environmental science, policy and management department.

Historic redlining maps, developed by the government-founded Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, were once used to assign neighborhoods one of four grades corresponding to the perceived investment risk based on factors such as racial demographics, according to the study. 

Using these maps, the study found that today, there is a higher prevalence of preterm birth and low gestation weight in redlined, or lower-grade, neighborhoods, according to Morello-Frosch. The prevalence of low birth weight, however, was not as clear.

“Studies like ours and similar studies that have looked at the health effects of redlining show that even 80 years after these policies were enacted and declared illegal, they’re still having a detrimental effect on current health,” Morello-Frosch said.

Although there have been previous studies looking at the correlation between redlining and birth effects, this new study imposes stricter statistical methods to eliminate confounding variables, Morello-Frosch added. This method is meant to ensure that the relationship observed is not due to underlying variables that were not controlled or otherwise accounted for.

Morello-Frosch said redlining studies are important in showing how racist policies in the past are still affecting the present.

“Often, Americans like to think that a lot of these racist policies are in the past,” Morello-Frosch said. “If we’re going to address the fundamental effects of these forms of structural racism, then we can’t just ignore historical policies.”

Although it is a “tragedy” that these historically racist policies still have an impact today, old redlining maps can be used to make better decisions on intervention strategies to improve the health of marginalized groups, according to Morello-Frosch.

Morello-Frosch added that some of these strategies could include deciding where future investments in neighborhoods should go, improving the physical infrastructure of neighborhoods and prioritizing the health of redlined neighborhoods.

Moving forward, Morello-Frosch said she and Nardone are looking at the relationship between redlining and green space.

Zoe Chen is a research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zoe_chen820.