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Where black babies die at a rate three times that of white babies

Where black babies die at a rate three times that of white babies

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For years, Milwaukee has struggled to reduce one of the highest infant mortality rates of any big city in America.

In late 2011, after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel presented story after story examining the life-extinguishing forces driving that rate, our mayor, Tom Barrett, did something remarkable:

He stepped up. He set a goal.

He vowed to reduce the black rate by 15 percent and the city’s overall rate by 10 percent by 2017.

Infant mortality rates are famously stubborn, but this seemed, even at the time, pretty modest, especially considering that the rate was already trending in that general direction, that a settlement with Blue Cross & Blue Shield would contribute tens of millions of dollars to the effort and that if the city could come close to eliminating sleep-related deaths alone (such deaths were considered, as one official said, “low-hanging fruit”) that would carry the city across the goal line.

Well, here we are. Five years later and 2017 is within spitting distance.

The black infant death rate has gone up. As a result, the overall city rate has only slightly budged downward.

Were it not for the plunging white rate, now at an historic lows, the city would have no chance at all of reaching the overall goal it set in 2011. And there is no chance at all that the black rate will hit the target.

This is sickening when you think about it.

What is going on in Milwaukee that the black rate climbs even as the white rate falls?

When the mayor set the infant mortality rate goals in 2011, African American babies died at 2.5 times the rate of white babies. That disparity in 2015 approached an historic high, with black babies dying at 3.2 times the rate of white babies.

So that’s what my 2016 National Fellowship project is about. It asks, “What happened? Even with the wind at our backs, what happened?”

I’m guessing two things, both demonstrable with data, both exceedingly heartbreaking in ways that data fails to convey.

First — and this is a more minor factor — the city’s safe sleep effort was heavy handed, culturally insulting, too clever by half, and it impeded the city’s African American community from joining with the broader city effort, which it viewed as institutionally white, judgmental and dismissive.

And secondly, the Great Recession.

Milwaukee’s failed effort to reduce infant mortality is the story of how the recession not only hit the African American community with greater ferocity than the white community, but the damage has been lingering and recovery slow.

[Photo by Matt Schilder via Flickr.]


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Is this situation something that is happening nationwide????? Why are there not screaming headlines in newspapers across the country, not just the Journel.......................

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Excellent article! Please don't overlook the fact that Milwaukee is almost always at the top among the most segregated U.S. cities. Many researchers view residential segregation as a root cause of health inequities. It'd be interesting to see what the black-white infant mortality gap is in some of the U.S.'s least-segregated cities.

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“Racism in medicine is a national emergency.” That’s how journalist Nicholas St. Fleur characterized the crisis facing American health care this spring, as his team at STAT embarked on “Color Code,” an eight-episode series exploring medical mistrust in communities of color across the country. In this webinar, we’ll take inspiration from their work to discuss strategies and examples for telling stories about inequities, disparities and racism in health care systems. Sign-up here!

The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors to serve as thought leaders in one of the most innovative and rewarding arenas in journalism today – “engaged reporting” that puts the community at the center of the reporting process. Learn more about the positions and apply to join our team.


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