We can do better in battle against poverty

·8 min read
Martha Hobson
Martha Hobson

“If we want to reduce poverty, one of the simplest, fastest and cheapest things we could do would be to make sure that as few people as possible become parents before they want to,” says Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution.

Even though poverty and pregnancy go hand in hand in our country, I am hearing a lot about pregnancy, but not so much about poverty. And, I am hearing about pregnancy from interesting sources — old, white male politicians.

As the national political discourse has gotten more strident, a lot of uninvited issues have gotten stuck in my head: poverty, autonomy for males but not for females, health care, contraception, prenatal care, postnatal care, maternity leave, healthy mothers, overworked mothers, healthy babies, sickly babies, affluent new parents and parents caught in poverty.

Ostensibly, this space is dedicated to financial and social topics affecting seniors. And, I guess thegthy families make a difference in the country we leave our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

For 2020, the United States had the third highest rate of child poverty among the 38 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, founded in Paris in 1948). You read that correctly. We are just ahead of Costa Rica and South Africa and behind Bulgaria, Romania, Israel and all the rest. We have been stuck near the bottom for decades.

Iceland, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland and Ireland have the fewest children in poverty.

The OECD defines the poverty rate as “the ratio of the number of people (in a given age group) whose income falls below the 50% median household income of the total population.”

Post-COVID figures indicate that at least 17% of young people in the United States live in poverty. That’s about one in seven children age 17 or younger. According to the “State of the Child in Tennessee" report, released by the Tennessee State Commission on Children and Youth, 22.6% of children live in poverty in our state, or more than one in five.

Childhood poverty in Anderson County may be close to 20% —  and not just in the recesses of the county, but in Oak Ridge and Clinton, too. When you look in the face of a youngster on one of our streets, you may be seeing hunger without knowing it.

When the states have been given federal money to help curb childhood poverty, Tennessee has held onto more dollars than any other state, stockpiling at least $732 million, according to The Tennessean newspaper, a sister newspaper of The Oak Ridger.

About $214 million was earmarked, but not spent, for child care, which is so necessary for families to be able to hold jobs. It is hard, if not impossible, to find information about how much the state is currently spending — or hoarding — of the available federal funds to alleviate poverty. These funds are apparently sitting in an account in Washington, not drawing interest.

Even though I am not hearing much about poverty, but a lot about pregnancy, I am not hearing empathy for moms or moms-to-be — affluent or poor.

Pregnancy, itself, is a dangerous medical condition. It can be a frightening, an overwhelming, process for an over-worked, malnourished female or a young girl whose body is trying to mature.

The mother’s uterus provides a safe place for a fetus to grow. The mother produces about 50% more blood than usual in order to provide a growing fetus with oxygen and nutrients. Her lungs oxygenate the fetus, and her digestive system produces the nutrients both of them need. The mother’s organs are involved, and she has no control over the process even if she is exhausted or ill.

Even though pregnancy is a serious medical condition, many women do not have health insurance or access to prenatal care. Women who do not receive prenatal care have babies with low birth weight, babies who are five times more likely to die than those babies born to mothers who do get care, according to womenshealth.gov.

Without health insurance, prenatal and postnatal care are sketchy to non-existent for many poor women.

Texas keeps landing in the news (breaking our hearts), and 26.3% of women of child-bearing age in Texas do not have health insurance, according to americanhealthrankings.org. Nationwide, 12.9% of women do not have health insurance, according to houstonpublicmedia.org.

If you are squeamish about medical conditions and bodily functions, you probably need to skip the next couple of paragraphs. They deal with the female body post-delivery.

The body must recover from pregnancy, of course, and women deal with breast engorgement, constipation, pelvic floor changes, sweating, uterine pain and vaginal discharge.

According to the website verywellfamily.com, the following are the postpartum supplies that help ease pregnancy recovery: maternity pads, mesh underwear, Chux pads, large (comfortable) underwear, maxi pads or urinary incontinence pads. Other supplies needed, according to the website, are a squirt bottle, gauze pads or disposable washcloths, numbing products, pain medicine, a sitz bath, ice packs, Tucks pads, a donut pillow and healthy food, snacks and drinks.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a 12-year-old pregnant incest victim, a mom who has to go back to work almost immediately, an affluent mom who has help at home with her other children or a stable 40-year-old with good health insurance who has decided to have a baby, the body has to recover.

What would it be like if women had paid maternity leave, time to heal?

“The United States is the only wealthy country in the world without any guaranteed paid parental leave at the national level. … While nine states and the District of Columbia mandate some degree of paid parental leave, federal law guarantees new parents just six weeks of unpaid time off, and not all workers qualify,” says the Washington Post.

“Paid parental leave is not especially controversial in much of the world. In Britain, a working mother can take up to 52 weeks, a full year, of maternity leave. Thirty-nine of those weeks are paid, provided they meet the employment criteria,” continues the Post.

“Advocates of paid leave for new parents argue that it improves the well-being of both parents and babies, by enabling parents to take time off while ensuring some job and income protection. ... Supporters argue that such policies also recognize the work and economic contribution that parents make by caring for their children, as well as the time it takes to recover physically and emotionally after giving birth,” says the Post.

Health care makes a big difference in outcomes for expectant mothers and their babies, of course.

The maternal death rate in the United States for 2019 was 17.4 per 100,000 live births, the fifth highest mortality rate among 58 countries. Our country ranked last among industrialized countries, according to “Statista.”

According to the same report, Iceland, Estonia, Slovenia, Slovak Republic, Norway, Ireland, and Luxembourg had zero maternal deaths in 2019. Poland had 1.1, and Canada had 7.5 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

Tennessee had 26.7 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2019, making it the 11th most dangerous state in the United States to give birth and making it a little more dangerous than giving birth in Costa Rica at 20.2 deaths per 100,000 live births and making it somewhat safer than giving birth in Mexico at 34.2 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Louisiana is the most dangerous state in which to give birth at 58.1 deaths per 100,000 live births. That is worse than Colombia, South America, which has 50.7 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. Georgia is the second most dangerous state in which to give birth at 48.4 deaths per 100,000 live births, almost as dangerous as Colombia, according to the “World Population Review,” a report written in 2022, “based on the most recent data available.”

The United States did not publish a maternal death report for 11 years between 2005 and 2016 because states were reluctant to report deaths related to childbirth, according to Vox.

Universal health care is a health-care system in which 90% of residents of a particular country or region are assured access to health care.

Although standards vary widely, some 70 countries provide universal health care, with at least 30 countries providing care free-of-charge to most of its citizens. Many of these countries provide free contraception, prenatal care, postnatal care, paid maternity leave, and they manage breastfeeding acceptance.

The United States joins South Africa, Iran, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and China (although China is working on it) in not providing universal health care, according to World Atlas.com.

Even though our federal and state governments are spending billions on childbirth related conditions and intensive neonatal services for needy babies, care is unevenly available. It just feels as though our country could follow the lead of other nations and spend some of that money to help women and families with health care, contraception and sex education.

If we are the richest country in the world, we are surely unevenly developed.

With end-of-life health-care directives, men and women both get to decide what they want for their bodies, but we do not want to afford that same freedom to women of child-bearing age.

And many of our people will pay a terrible price.

Martha Moore Hobson was an early Certified Financial Planner in the region. Although retired, she is an active volunteer in in Oak Ridge.

This article originally appeared on Oakridger: We can do better in poverty battle