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Health study finds huge disparities based on race, neighborhood

Sun-Times file photo

A three-year health study of nine city neighborhoods found large disparities among racial and ethnic groups in areas including physical and mental health, food insecurity and encounters with the criminal-justice system.

Funded by a $1 million Chicago Community Trust grant, the study, titled “Community Health Counts,” is believed the largest community-driven, face-to-face health survey ever conducted in Chicago.

It is being released Thursday by the Sinai Urban Health Institute.

“The data paint a stark and complex picture of health and wellness in many Chicago communities, varied by race, income and ethnicity,” said Dr. Sharon Homan, president of the Sinai Urban Health Institute. “To develop meaningful interventions to improve health, we must first understand the constellation of social factors that impact people and families within each community.”

The study focused on seven disadvantaged Southwest and West Side communities served by Sinai Health Systems. Those are: the predominantly Hispanic Gage Park, Humboldt Park and South Lawndale neighborhoods; predominantly black North Lawndale and West Englewood; Chicago Lawn, about evenly split between black and Hispanic residents; and a portion of West Town that is pretty evenly white and Hispanic.

Researchers then added the predominantly Hispanic Hermosa neighborhood and predominantly white Norwood Park for added diversity and comparison.

Working with advisory committees that were established in all nine communities, researchers surveyed more than 1,900 residents with more than 500 questions related to health and wellness, and found some staggering race- and neighborhood-based statistics.

Data on criminal justice encounters, for example, surely will impact current debates around the root causes of crime, criminal justice reform and mass incarceration. The study found more than half of adult males in North Lawndale and West Englewood have been arrested, as have nearly half of adult males in Humboldt Park and Chicago Lawn. At least 25 percent of males in all nine neighborhoods had been arrested.

Across all nine neighborhoods, 41 percent of non-Hispanic black males had been convicted of crimes, compared to 20 percent of white males. And in all but two neighborhoods, at least 24 percent of males had convictions for crimes.

The percent of families in all nine neighborhoods that struggle to put food on the table is nearly three times the national average. In Humboldt Park, South Lawndale and Gage Park, nearly half the households grapple with food insecurity, compared to 13 percent nationwide. Across all neighborhoods, 41 percent of black households faced food insecurity, as well as 30 percent of Hispanics and 14 percent of whites.

“You can get health information at the city level on a lot of topics, from things like birth and death certificates, and hospitalization data. But information on disease prevalence, health behaviors like diet and physical activity, and social factors that influence health — like food insecurity, encounters with the criminal justice system and homelessness — you need local data,” Maureen Benjamins, a Sinai senior researcher and the study’s co-principal investigator, told the Sun-Times on Wednesday.

“City level information typically isn’t available on this type of data, and when it is, it hides these differences in community areas that are so obvious in our findings,” Benjamins added.

The three-year study, begun in 2013, also found large numbers of residents in those communities rate their health as fair or poor — from 21 percent in West Town to 44 percent in South Lawndale; nationally, just 12 percent rate their health as fair or poor. Large numbers in the nine neighborhoods report forgoing needed medical treatment, from surgery to medication and eyeglasses, due to cost — despite the increased access to care wrought by the Affordable Care Act and state Medicaid expansion.

In the area of mental health, there were significant disparities in the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and domestic violence. The prevalence of PTSD symptoms was 27 percent in Humboldt Park, 25 percent in North Lawndale, 19 percent in Hermosa, 18 percent in Gage Park, and 17 percent in West Town and Chicago Lawn. PTSD was highest among Puerto Ricans (34 percent) and blacks (20 percent).

And in Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, and West Englewood, 1 in 3 women overall reported being victims of domestic violence, which was found to be a significant issue among all race/ethnic groups. It was highest among Puerto Rican women, of whom 4 in 10 said they had been victims; it was lowest among Mexican women (1 in 6).

Other health measures where race and neighborhood disparities were seen include smoking, diabetes, obesity, asthma, premature births, and whether people felt safe in their neighborhood. The Sinai Urban Health Institute is working with the community advisory committees to distribute the data, help organizations better understand risk factors in their communities, then develop meaningful approaches and solutions.

“There is nothing more basic and essential to human happiness than health and well being — conditions determined by both an individual’s circumstance and behavior,” said Chicago Community Trust President Terry Mazany. “The large disparities that exist between neighborhoods only miles apart should be troubling — and, at the same time, offer opportunities for solutions.”

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