Sunday, July 17, 2016

Infant Mortality: The New Deal saved and improved the lives of babies. Trickle-down economics, greed, and austerity are killing them.

Above: The description for this photo (ca. 1935-1939) reads, "Baby gets a bath with all modern conveniences at the Allegheny County Hospital, Pittsburgh, PA." The Allegheny Hospital was built with funds from the New Deal's Public Works Administration (PWA). Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

In recent years we've been alerted, time and time again, that our infant mortality rate is too high. But, like so many problems in America, e.g., crumbling infrastructure, gun violence, increasing rates of suicide, and children drinking leaded water, we're not doing much about it. We're in a state of political and cultural paralysis.

Consider just a few of these repeated warnings about infant mortality:


2014: "Our infant mortality rate is a national embarrassment," Washington Post, September 29, 2014.

2015: "U.S. infant mortality rate stays high, report finds," NBC News, August 6, 2015.

2016: "The U.S. is failing in infant mortality, starting at one-month," New York Times, June 6, 2016.

Why are so many infants dying in America, the wealthiest nation in the world? Well, for many reasons. But, according to Dr. Aaron Carroll at the Indiana University School of Medicine, "Deaths in the postneonatal period are due, in large part, to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)... and accidents. Moreover, they seem to occur disproportionately in poor women." Speaking about a recent study, Dr. Carroll writes, "One suggestion made by the authors, with which I agree, is that we consider programs of home nursing visits to reduce the incidence of SIDS and accidents."

Hmmm, in addition to building new hospitals, operating health clinics, delivering immunizations, making diapers for low-income families, improving nutrition, etc., guess what else the New Deal did?

Above: A WPA nurse on a home visit, helping a new mother. Image courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library & Museum and the New Deal Network.

So, a lot of infant mortality can be explained by poverty, which trickle-down economics, greed, and austerity has made worse over these past many years. But, since we have 19 million Americans who are un- and under-employed, and since experts say that home nursing visits would help reduce the rate of infant mortality, and since the history of the WPA shows us that we can successfully hire the unemployed to engage in such work, we'll surely create a new WPA program, right? For the good of infants and children, yes?
 
Nope.
 
You see, free market fanatics, Tea Partiers, Ayn Rand devotees, and Koch puppets have so thoroughly demonized public programs, that we're too scared of the Socialism Bogeyman to address infant mortality in a significant way. And conservative Democrats and Neoliberals, beholden to Corporate America, devote little energy to changing this toxic "government-is-bad" national dialogue. Also, unlike New Deal policymakers--who saw the unemployed as an untapped resource--many modern policymakers view the unemployed as useless "parasites" and "takers." Therefore, tax-breaks-for-the-wealthy, and less spending on the common good, will remain the dominant philosophies. Call it: "Who-Gives-A-Sh&t" public policy.
 
The state of Kansas provides a good example of our modern Who-Gives-A-Sh&t public policy. There, Governor Sam Brownback--a Tea Party darling and a leader of the trickle-down economics movement--has repeatedly threatened to cut his state's Children's Initiative Fund (part of which supports an infant health assistance program) to help close the budget gap created by his massive tax cuts for the wealthy. Nice, right?
 
So, for the foreseeable future we will continue to lag behind other developed countries on infant health--just as we lag behind on just about every other health care metric (for example, life expectancy)--while simultaneously waving flags and yelling "We're Number One!!" 
 
Unfortunately for infants (and the rest of us), the cost of being "number one" can be death.
 
"...we estimate that every $100 in New Deal spending per capita was associated with... a reduction in infant deaths of 18 per 1,000 live births..."
 
--David Stuckler (sociologist, Oxford University) and Sanjay Basu (epidemiologist, Stanford University), "How Austerity Kills," New York Times, May 12, 2013

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