We’re the “richest nation in the world,” but American decline can be measured in maternal mortality, dead teens, hungry kids and those who like it this way.
When a society is on the way up, the future looks bright. Opportunity abounds, growth and prosperity are evident everywhere. Public health, sanitation, and education make real differences. Unfortunately, societies on the way down show obvious progress too, just in the other direction. Growth can’t be sustained forever, and that which rises also falls. American decline can be measured not only in the wealth of oligarchs, but in broken lives, hungry children, maternal mortality, and ecological destruction.
Maternal mortality has been on the rise in recent years. In 2021, the number of American women to die of maternal causes rose to 1,205. It doesn’t look like that huge of a number, but it’s a reminder that the birth event doesn’t always end with the tired yet smiling mother embracing a suckling infant, the very image of domestic bliss. While death is always a possible outcome for those giving birth, the number doesn’t have to be that high. In 2018, only 658 American women died of causes relating to childbirth. In 2019, only 754, and in 2020, 861.
Why the rise?
According to the Commonwealth Fund, the United States has, by far, the highest maternal mortality rate among industrialized, wealthy nations. The COVID pandemic certainly didn’t make it any better. However, the same circumstances that result in worse outcomes for birthing mothers are also significant markers of American decline in general. Nearly 7 million women had minimal or no access to maternal health care. Chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease contribute to ill health for mothers and their babies. Racial disparities – the death rate for Black mothers is 2.6 times worse than for white mothers – indicate that social and economic inequality plays an outsized role.
In Michigan, for example, over 63% of the maternal deaths between 2015 and 2019 were preventable. Women are dying who could have lived to care for their children, if we lived in a better-prepared, more compassionate, healthier nation. “Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies,” a Michigan initiative, funds programs intended to improve outcomes for families, such as home visits from support personnel who can provide information about breastfeeding, child development, health care options and more, perhaps for as long as five years after the child is born. Federal legislation has also been introduced in hopes of improving maternal health, including the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act and the Protecting Moms Who Served Act of 2021, nominally bipartisan efforts signed by President Biden.
It’s not just moms who are dying unnecessarily, though. It’s also the children.
Between 2019 and 2021, pediatric mortality increased by 20%, the biggest jump in two generations, according to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More ‘tween and teenage Americans are dying from suicide, homicide, drug overdoses and car accidents, trends which predate the pandemic. Even more young children, an increase of 8.4% of those 1-10 years old, are dying. Much like their mothers, the prematurely dead kids skew non-white, with Black youths from age 10-19 20% likelier to die from homicide than white youths. Black and Native American youths are twice as likely as white peers to die from suicide. These, no less than the more well known opioid deaths among middle-aged white men, are the deaths that come from despair and American decline.
Not all who suffer will die so soon, though. Some will merely suffer from poverty in the poster-country for capitalistic success.
As the temporary, extra helping of benefits that sustained poorer Americans through the pandemic are expiring this month, American decline will also be measured in hunger and homelessness. Some families and elders will see their SNAP (“food stamp”) benefits decrease by about $90/month (for individuals) or $250+/month (for families), back down to the bare bones levels that made existence so precarious prior to 2020. It’s the difference between finally feeling full and healthy, and having to go back to one meal per day, or deciding whether to feed the children instead of yourself, or eating or paying other bills.
In Michigan, the end of pandemic benefits means that over 1.3 million people – 700,000 families, or 13% of Michiganders – will lose food assistance, even as grocery prices are soaring. People will make up the shortfall somehow, perhaps by stiffing creditors, visiting food banks, or going hungry. Food banks are doing what they can to shore up their supplies for the expected increase in visits, but as a charity, they can only work with what they have. If the government, businesses, private citizens, and other charities (such as churches) are unable or unmoved to cover shortfalls, the supplies are more limited. One wonders, too, what the grocery stores, landlords, and other businesses will do when their revenue falls, or their workers show up hungry and lethargic instead of full and ready to go.
School lunch programs could close part of the gap, at least for children. The Minnesota state senate recently passed a bill that makes hot school lunches free for all students, 275,000 of whom are poor enough to already receive free or low-priced meals. (One in six Minnesota students is food insecure.) While Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat, says he will sign the bill, Republican Senator Steve Drazkowski vociferously objected, saying that he’s never met a hungry person in his state. “Hunger is a relative term,” he explained, showing his ignorance and lack of empathy. “I had a cereal bar for breakfast. I guess I’m hungry now.” He went on to wonder if poor students would also depend on schools for other needs, like socks, hats, or warm clothing, and (erroneously) called the legislation “socialism.”
Drazkowski’s fellow Republican and likely 2024 Presidential hopeful, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, had some hopeful words about children recently. “Life is a sacred gift worthy of our protection,” he explained as he signed Florida HB 5, a “fetal heartbeat” bill which bans abortions after six weeks gestation, and which will almost certainly lead to more births when we’re having trouble feeding and keeping alive the children who are already here.
While DeSantis expressed his belief that six week embryos with barely formed arm and leg buds “have beating hearts, who can move, who can taste, who can see, and who can feel pain,” one wonders if he’ll worry so much about existing mothers and children, especially if he wins the presidency and expands his ability to control our lives during the American decline. If voters agree that feeding, housing, and protecting our children is “socialism,” as Drazkowski believes, maybe actual socialism will start looking better than the politicians who are more than accepting of the kind of poverty and mortality rates that are killing American mothers and children these days.