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Study Finds Link Between Infant Mortality Rate and Political Party in Power

University of Michigan researchers report that, after taking into account its long-term downward trend, the infant mortality rate in the U.S. rises during GOP presidencies.
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(Photo: Matthew Benoit/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Matthew Benoit/Shutterstock)

We all know that elections matter. But recently published research suggests they may matter in one startlingly unexpected way.

It concludes that, after accounting for a long-term downward slope, the infant mortality rate in the United States is significantly higher when a Republican occupies the White House.

An analysis of data from 1965 to 2010 finds overall infant mortality rates are two percent above the long-term trend during a typical year of a Republican presidency, and one percent below the trend during a typical year of a Democratic administration.

"Infant mortality rates are about 3 percent higher during a typical Republican-president year than a typical Democratic-president year."

This suggests “the political system is a component of the underlying mechanism generating health inequality in the U.S.A.,” writes a research team led by University of Michigan political scientist Javier Rodriguez. Its paper is published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Rodriguez and his colleagues analyzed infant, neonatal, and post-neonatal mortality rate data from the U.S. National Vital Statistics Reports. Taking into account the fact that any policy implemented by a new president would take some months to be enacted, they measured a presidential “term” as the four calendar years beginning the year after his inauguration.

They found a dramatic decline of 75 percent in the overall infant mortality rate during that 45-year-period. But digging beneath that good news, they uncovered a troubling statistic. Taking that trend into account, they write, “infant mortality rates are about 3 percent higher during a typical Republican-president year than a typical Democratic-president year.”

“In proportional terms, effects are roughly as large for blacks as they are for whites,” the researchers continue. “However, since black (infant-mortality) rates are more than twice as high as white rates, this implies substantially larger absolute effects for blacks.”

Rodriguez and his colleagues concede the link between the president’s party and the nation’s infant-mortality rate could be spurious. They note that a president’s power is limited, and decisions by state and local governments, as well as court rulings, can impact public-health policies.

That said, the researchers write they are “struck by the consistency of the association we have uncovered” across nine presidential administrations.

In recent decades, as ideological divisions have hardened, the two major American political parties have come to “view health disparities through different political ideological lenses,” they note.

If Democrats “view health disparities as a preventable social problem” and Republicans see them as “a matter of personal responsibility,” government interventions to improve health care are more likely to be enacted under Democratic administrations, the researchers write. Such programs could, of course, impact infant mortality rates.

They add that, in a wider sense, “the election of the president from one party or the other reflects the empowerment, enfranchisement or political mobilization” of certain sections of the population. “The health of vulnerable populations may be impeded or promoted” depending upon whose political capital is on the rise.

It will be most interesting to see if this relationship continues during the Obama years, which have been marked by both a major economic recession and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The fact that more people are getting health insurance could certainly impact the infant mortality rate; if so, the relationship Rodriguez and his colleagues have uncovered will be that much more robust.