Editorial: Why are so many black babies dying in Kansas?

We shouldn’t pretend like black infant mortality is more of a mystery than it is

Nakida Maxson, whose friends joked that birthing classes and taking prenatal pills were things only white people did, holds her 15-day-old daughter, Dariya Jordan Smith, at home Friday, April 30, 2004, in Chicago. With the black infant mortality rate more than twice as high as whites, Maxson was determined to not become part of that troubling statistical trend and ignored her friends saying “It’s not a white people thing, it’s a child thing.” (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

According to a recent report from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the infant mortality rate in our state is 5.9 per 1,000 live births — a proportion that jumps to 15.2 per 1,000 for black babies. The report also found that socioeconomic factors are correlated with infant deaths in Kansas. Although 32.4 percent of live births were funded by Medicaid between 2012 and 2016, this group accounted for 44.5 percent of infant deaths. This correlation exists across the country, as does the gross racial disparity in infant mortality.


While KDHE spokesman Jerry Kratochvil says the agency isn’t sure what’s causing this disparity, it isn’t difficult to come up with a general explanation. The high rate of infant deaths in the black community is a symptom of deeply ingrained racial inequality that still persists at all levels in Kansas and around the country.

For example, in a 2016 study published in Labour Economics, Michigan State University researchers Steven J. Haider, Todd Elder and John Goddeeris found that “infant mortality gaps for our six racial/ethnic groups exhibit many commonalities, and these commonalities suggest a prominent role for socio-economic differences.” One of the most pronounced commonalities they identify is a lack of education among nonwhite mothers.

When you take a look at ACT scores in Kansas, you’ll see huge racial disparities that demonstrate how far some students have fallen behind by high school and how difficult it will be for them to succeed in college.

Only 6 percent of black students reached all four of the college readiness benchmarks on the ACT in 2017 — something 36 percent of white students were able to do. This is one of the factors that has led to the substantial gap between the proportions of white and black Americans who hold college degrees: 36 percent and 23 percent, respectively. Now consider the fact that the average median salary for college graduates is around $60,000 per year and less than $36,000 per year for Americans who only have a high school diploma.

And socioeconomic factors are often directly tied to health care access.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s most recent “Race for Results” report, 77 percent of Kansas children are fortunate enough to live in low-poverty areas, but this proportion falls to 51 percent for black children. Perhaps this explains why a 2012 study in Health Services Research found that almost twice as many African-Americans live in “zip codes with few or no primary care physicians” than whites. And in 2016, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 21 percent of African-Americans either didn’t receive or had to delay health care in 2014, while only 14 percent of whites faced the same problem.

While 6.4 percent of white Kansans don’t have health insurance, the rate is 14.3 for African-Americans in the state.

CDC data suggest that gap in health care is having an adverse effect on black mothers. While 25.8 percent of black mothers say they “received late (after first trimester) or no entry into prenatal care,” this proportion collapses to 12 percent for whites. Meanwhile, only 79.5 percent of black mothers “received prenatal care as early in their pregnancy as wanted,” compared to 87.5 percent of white mothers.”

Finally, according to KDHE, women who weren’t married when they got pregnant accounted for 36.3 percent of the live births but almost half of all infant deaths. More than 70 percent of the births in the African-American community are out of wedlock.

While it isn’t clear exactly what has caused the high infant mortality rate among black Kansans, we can certainly make a few educated guesses.

Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.



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