Infant mortality rates in the US seem to go up during a Republican presidency and down during a Democrat presidency

Presidents matter.
Presidents matter.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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The US has made a lot of progress in cutting infant mortality. The rate today stands at about five deaths per 1,000 births, down from more than 50 deaths per 1,000 births in 1935.

But that progress doesn’t match other developed countries. In an OECD ranking, the US comes below Hungary and above the Slovak Republic.

Why? A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor looked at how the US president’s party affected infant mortality rates and found a surprising correlation: When Republicans control the presidency, infant mortality rates tend to go up.

Image for article titled Infant mortality rates in the US seem to go up during a Republican presidency and down during a Democrat presidency
Image: Rodriguez et al/IJE

The authors of the 2013 study accept that there is a possibility that the correlation is spurious; other factors may lead to the outcomes seen in the data. And Democratic and Republican administrations have both introduced policies that may have led to reduced infant mortality rates.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Social Security Act of 1965, introduced under a Democratic presidency, eventually helped reduce racial disparity and increased healthcare spending for those who couldn’t afford it, the Michigan researchers point out. Meanwhile, the expansion of Medicaid between 1979 and 1992, during largely Republican presidencies, also helped reduce mortality rates. Yet the Michigan researchers wrote that they were “struck by the consistency of the association we have uncovered.”

In any case, the data doesn’t bode well for predicting what might happen under a Donald Trump presidency. Trump has said he would be okay with further restrictions on a woman’s right to abortion, a right the Supreme Court enshrined in Roe v. Wade. Such rights tend to go hand in hand with better family planning services for all women. If people have more freedom to properly plan families, there are fewer unplanned pregnancies, and those children who are born receive better care. A 1997 study correlated abortion rights with lower infant mortality rates because the aborted fetuses would have been more likely to die as infants if they were carried to term.

As with any health metric, a multitude of factors contribute to infant mortality rates. Factors such as health education and community engagement matter, and these things can be independent of the presidency. In light of the 2013 study, perhaps they should be cranked up under a Trump presidency to ensure that American progress to reduce infant mortality doesn’t stall.