The winner of dajeeps award of the week for presenting vaguely correlated evidence, lack of due diligence, and politicizing the deaths of infants is Bloomberg View for this article “What 2013 Taught Economists About Infant Mortality and Austerity.”
In the article (that contains monetary conclusions as well), the following graph is presented with some claims that are rather spectacular reaches.
Infant mortality in the U.S. fell 12 percent from 2005 to 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control. This good news is startling given that inequality grew and unemployment skyrocketed over the same period. How did conditions improve for babies, when they were deteriorating for their parents?
One answer is the safety net. Medicaid pays for about 40 percent of births. Because almost all births are paid for by either public or private insurance, all infants have access to life-saving technologies.
A second strand of the safety net is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC. The initial rollout of the program reduced low birth weight and prematurity among children born to less educated women and in counties with high poverty levels. Many studies have shown continuing benefits.
A third strand involves home-visit programs by nurses. Nurses drop in on high-risk, pregnant women before birth and for up to two years afterward. While there is no national initiative, 20 states have created their own programs.
Other trends have also been moving in the right direction. Starting with the Clean Air Act of 1970, the U.S. has reduced hazardous pollution. Pollution levels fell in the recession. From 2005 to 2010, carbon monoxide fell to 1.6 parts per million from 2.3 parts per million, which led to substantial improvements in health at birth.
The takeaway message is that conditions for babies have improved despite the economic dislocation of the recession because government successfully shielded them from the fallout and worked to improve their environment.
Being a natural skeptic and cynical that government programs help anyone without trading off one problem for another, except under certain circumstances, I thought I’d take a closer look at these claims to see if they hold water.
The first problem with it is the reference material. The link to government statistical reports included with the claims based on the graph do not contain data for the infant mortality rate or analysis thereof. The referenced link points to an analysis of the US birth and fertility rates instead. I had to dig through the footnotes in the referenced report to find a link to an analysis of the infant mortality rate, and even then that report covers only 2008-2009. But it does have chart data going back to 2000.
Looking at the chart data in the infant mortality rate analysis (page 7), it is apparent that the bulk of infant mortality since 2000, an average of ~66% is due to premature birth which was elevated from 2000 at 65.6% through 2009 at 67%. This point is apparently lost on the author(s), especially when making the claims regarding improved access to medical care through Medicaid or availability of WIC has improved conditions for babies.
I am not aware of the exact history of WIC and am a bit lazy; but it has been around at least since I was a teenager, through both Democratic and Republican congresses and administrations. It is hard to see it posing much dramatic improvement in what generally can be done about the bulk of the infant mortality issue above and beyond its initial implementation. If there are any recent improvements in the results of the program, it is additionally difficult to attribute it to any single entity given that it operates much like the rest of the safety net programs that are administered by states, and improvements would be reflected in individual state statistics instead of a national number posited in the graph.
Reference to the Clean Air Act in this correlation seems like a reach, at best. There is simply no data referenced that would lead one to even a superficially plausible conclusion.
And what about austerity? Well, by the end of the blurb about infant mortality, we simply do not know if there is any correlation between government spending and infant mortality at all. The author(s) forget to tie it in; although I seem to recall trumpets blaring in the late 1990’s about a balanced budget and infant mortality due to premature birth was at its lowest recent rate in 2000. The exception to this lack of direct correlation is that the reader is spoon-fed the supposed beneficial impacts of government programs throughout the piece, and is subsequently left to draw the conclusion that less of them mean more babies dying in the years ahead. It is nothing more than a dressed up political hit piece, making an inference that fiscal conservatives are passive baby killers.
I happen to support feeding and helping needy mothers-to-be medically, only I question the appropriate way to do so; and I find this article to be an insult to my intelligence and a source of political aggravation that is highly unwarranted. The politicization of the deaths of premature babies reflects a level of incivility that is really quite sad and does nothing to solve any of the deeper political problems we face. These anonymous journalists Bloomberg should be ashamed of themselves.