Do Republican-led governments really lead to more infant deaths?

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Does a child’s health really depend on which political party is in power? A recent study finds both infant and post-neonatal mortality rates are significantly higher whenever Republicans control state legislatures. Study authors also report this relationship may be even more drastic among African-American infants.

“These findings support the politics hypothesis that the social determinants of health are, at least in part, constructed by the power vested in governments,” says lead investigator Javier M. Rodriguez, PhD, from Claremont Graduate University in a media release.

The research team explains that local state legislatures are responsible for a number of programs as well as social and health obligations that greatly influence the health outcomes of state residents. Examples include state minimum wage, safety net programs, and various additional public services. The study finds this connection has remained steady and consistent since the 1970s. During this time, states began working to become more independent from federal jurisdiction over welfare programs, including programs directly affecting the health and longevity of infants, such as Medicaid.

Political policies more harmful for Black children?

To research this topic more thoroughly, scientists analyzed how changes in the party composition of a state’s legislatures, as well as within the upper and lower houses and governorships, effects that state’s infant mortality rates, neonatal mortality rates and post-neonatal mortality rates. Specifically, study authors looked at a period spanning 1969 to 2014. The data also included yearly state unemployment statistics and other sociodemographic elements.

Researchers conclude infant mortality is consistently more common under Republican-controlled state legislatures than non-Republican–controlled ones. More specifically, transitioning from a non-Republican-controlled state Congress to a Republican-controlled Congress contributes to a 4.2-percent increase in infant mortality and an 8.1-percent increase in post-neonatal mortality.

The findings are especially true in African-American households. The annual increase in Black infant mortality under Republican legislatures stands at 5.9 percent, according to the study.

Governors more often move to the middle?

Interestingly, study authors did not find any evidence suggesting Republican governors specifically influence infant mortality rates. The team speculates this may be due to differences between states when it comes to the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches. Some governors’ health policies don’t coincide exactly with their party’s overarching beliefs or mandates. For instance, some Republican governors who are not very conservative may agree more with a Democratic legislature on healthcare issues.

In conclusion, study authors caution that their work could not account for all potentially influential factors on infant mortality rates. However, this research still makes a strong case that politics and the decisions and policies governments make are far more than just fodder for debates. These decisions have real-world, life and death, consequences for everyone – even infants.

“Unfortunately, in a drastically polarized political environment, it is often difficult for Americans to notice the underlying mechanisms that distribute the production of illness and human suffering that ultimately decide who lives and who dies of preventable reasons,” Dr. Rodriquez concludes. “As political decisions are a matter of life and death, the parties, politicians and policies that Americans support should be evidence-based and incorruptible. A deep understanding of political processes and institutions at the state level is necessary for improving overall population health and promoting health equity.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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