Effects of paternal education on infant health outcomes vary by race and ethnicity, Rangel and Rauscher find

November 24, 2020

PSTC faculty associates David Rangel (Education) and Emily Rauscher (Sociology) integrated their respective areas of expertise to examine the relationship between paternal education and infant health through a new study recently published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities (Rangel or Rauscher can be contacted for a copy of the full text).

While there is a considerable body of research linking maternal educational attainment to infant health, there is far less evidence about the role that paternal education plays. Rangel and Rauscher measured infant health using data on birth weight, low birth weight, gestational age, and preterm birth. They measured parental education using population-level data on live births from the National Vital Statistics birth data, which gathers information from certificates that parents complete after birth. Rauscher explained, “The questions asked include the highest level of education completed. From 1995 to 2010, they did not gather information about the father’s education, but before and after those years, they gather education attainment for both parents.” 

As they investigated the role of paternal education, Rangel and Rauscher also looked at how the effects vary by race and ethnicity. Discussing their key findings, Rauscher stated, “It is well known that maternal education is strongly related to infant health. We find that infant health is about equally related to paternal education. The strength of this relationship varies by race and ethnicity, and paternal education is more strongly related to health among Black infants.” 

The researchers found that the correlation between paternal education and infant health is not only strongest among Black fathers, but that among Black families, paternal education is more strongly associated with infant health than maternal education. They also found a weaker relationship between paternal education and infant health among Asian and Hispanic fathers than white, American Indian and Black fathers.

Though it warrants more investigation, the racial and ethnic variation in the role of paternal education on infant health should not be overlooked. Rangel noted, “The implications for infant health are not altogether clear, but something we mention in the paper is that policies focused on expanding educational opportunities may address larger racial and ethnic infant health disparities. Moreover, the differential relationship between infant health and education across race and ethnicity suggests that sources of poor infant health may also differ across groups, and that interventions to improve racial and ethnic infant health disparities may have limited success if they do not account for the unique contexts of the communities in which parents are embedded.”

Of the importance of this area of research, Rauscher explained, “Infant health provides a measure of inequality at birth. Research often focuses on inequalities during childhood, but the unequal chances start before birth.” She and Rangel further collaborate on the issue in a forthcoming paper that documents rising inequality of infant health. 

The researchers noted that this collaboration has been strengthened by the PSTC, where they first became acquainted. Rangel commented, “PSTC provided us the opportunity to forge an even deeper working relationship on topics of mutual interest. Moreover, PSTC has been central to our collaboration, providing us with financial and intellectual support to make our project come to fruition.” 

When thinking about the impact of the project, the researchers consider the importance of this research to population studies more broadly. “We hope that population studies will recognize the importance of education and of fathers, in addition to mothers, in shaping children's life chances before birth,” Rauscher noted.

“Looking at the relationship between paternal education and infant health is another way to understand how parents pass on their educational advantages to their children,” Rangel added. “As I alluded to earlier, our work highlights the importance in accounting for within-group differences. We are not the first to mention this in the least, but our work, with such a robust sample, hopefully amplifies, in the context of paternal education, why accounting for variation is necessary.”