Habitot, an indoor romper room for toddlers, was filled to capacity with smiling and suited adults. Generally ignored by the infant inhabitants, Alameda County Supervisors Wilma Chan and Keith Carson stood before a model firetruck, handing out checks to Berkeley health care providers. Eleven organizations received $1.2 million in funds collected from Proposition 10, a voter-approved tobacco tax to provide a comprehensive system of early childhood development services for young children.
Standing with Chan was Mayor Shirley Dean, who touted the city’s plan to provide “pre-natal to pre-school” health care with the new funds.
“The Health Department will do home visits to new born babies where the public health nurse will be able to assist the parents, tell the parents what kind of medical care and immunizations they need to do, asses the family’s needs, and make referrals to places where they can get the help they need,” Dean said.
Dr. Vicki Alexander, director of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health for the city’s Health Department, received a check for $100,000. “This money has been a long time coming. The home visits will ensure that every child is ready for school, regardless of race, income, or parents’ levels of education,” Alexander said.
The program, said Alexander, brings together parents, community organizations, the city and county governments, the schools and the university to provide early childhood education before kindergarten. Such a program will attack achievement gaps which develop among school children later, around third grade, Dean said.
“Healthy kids become healthy adults, and the problems with health care start right at the beginning of life. The problems of early education start then and there also,” Dean said. “What we’re trying to do with the pre-natal to pre-school program is recognize this link between health and education.”
Dean said early childhood is the proper, and least expensive, time to intervene in a child’s life.
“If you can change the environment, not just the physical, but the health environment, the family environment, the learning environment of a child in a positive way, you will make a difference. Our goal is that every child in the city of Berkeley will enter kindergarten healthy, ready and motivated to learn, and this will address later achievement gaps in the schools,” Dean said.
“Some families will require more assistance than others and they will receive that.”
The home visit program will address other disparities as well. Revelatory findings in the city’s 1999 Health Status Report showed Berkeley had the largest disparity in low-birth weight between black and white babies in the nation.
According to the report, the rate of low birth-weight babies born between 1990-1998 in Berkeley for African American women was 14.8 percent. Comparable rates for whites was 4.7 percent. Alexander, an African-American pediatrician, attributes the disparity to the psychological and physical toll of racism.
“Regardless of income and education, you have higher blood pressure and infant mortality rates in African-American communities. And while half of those numbers can be reasonably attributed to income, education, and medical causes like smoking and drugs, the other half is not due to anything we can put our finger on,” Alexander said.
Racism affects “low birth weight babies” in the African-American community because of a process she called, “weathering.”
“Just living day to day, there is constant stress on the mother, stress in the community, and as a woman gets older, her stress levels rise. When you add that to stress levels that an expecting mother is going through anyway, lower birth weights are a natural consequence.” Alexander said.
“These programs will try to rectify the differences in birth weights, ensure that kids are immunized, see that there is no lead in homes, increase pay of childcare workers, and educate parents and grandparents,” Alexander said.
But even if there are plans to bridge the disparity gap, there are several hurdles yet to be overcome. There is still a health care crisis to be reckoned with, said Marty Lynch, Executive Director of Lifelong Medical Care, an organization he calls the “primary safety net provider for health care” in low-income areas of Berkeley.
“There are between 15,000 and 20,000 people living in Berkeley without health care coverage,” said Lynch. Because of this, his clinic sees the hardest-hit portion of the population.
“We see unbelievable examples of disparity in the areas we work in - mostly South and West Berkeley and North Oakland. It ranges from more chronic health problems like cancer, heart disease, and hypertension to mothers-to-be who have difficulty getting pre-natal care.”
“The problem is outreaching to the people who need health care,” he said. “We have almost no capacity or resources to get to everyone who needs it. For whatever reasons, they often don’t come to us. All we have now is some doctor time - but even then we can’t serve everyone who comes through our doors. It’s impossible for us to serve the needs of the community.”