NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Racial Gap in Infant Mortality and Low-Birth-Weight Babies

February 8, 2002

Black infant mortality is more than twice that of whites', according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the rate for low-birth-weight babies exhibits a similar gap.

Experts assert that low-birth-weights result in lower average I.Q. and achievement test scores, more frequent learning and attention disorders, and the greater likelihood of dropping out before finishing high school.

Professionals contend that better pre-natal care leads to healthier births. That, they reason, should reduce the number of low-birth-rate minority children later afflicted by learning disorders. Also, better-educated mothers would seek greater pre-natal care, thus reducing infant mortalities.

But a curious anomaly has been noticed.

  • The infant mortality rate experienced by black women who are college graduates is higher than that for white women who are high-school dropouts.
  • The idea that more education about pre-natal care would eliminate disparities is a doubtful one because virtually every state now provides Medicaid to low-income pregnant women -- with no consequent drop in the incidence of low birth weight or infant mortality for blacks.
  • In examining the causes of problem pregnancies, medical researchers increasingly study lifetime stress -- not just stress during pregnancy.
  • Many experts now conclude that stress causes release of hormones that weaken the uterus -- leading to premature delivery or mortality.

The hormone changes can occur over a lifetime and build up from fear of violence, financial worries or concerns over job insecurity.

Source: Richard Rothstein, "Linking Infant Mortality to Schooling and Stress," New York Times, February 6, 2002.


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