Centering Black Mamas: The Right to Live and Thrive
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black homes and neighborhoods—painfully illustrating the far-reaching health inequities in America. These divides are especially stark for Black women and that will remain long after the virus subsides.
Pregnancy-related deaths are three times more common among Black women than white women, and Black infants are more than twice as likely to die as white infants. Addressing these disparities will require a comprehensive set of reforms not only to our healthcare system but our economic system as well.
We are two Black, feminist mothers: Gia Jones, an advocate and writer, has a daughter and twin sons; Ife Floyd, an anti-poverty policy analyst, has a daughter and son. Gia’s personal experiences and Ife’s research together show how cash assistance can improve Black maternal health.
Socioeconomic factors alone don’t explain Black women’s poorer maternal outcomes, studies show; institutional racism places added burdens on Black mothers. The nation needs a comprehensive set of policies to support Black mothers and families, and one key component is ensuring that families have strong financial supports.
Cash assistance should be a fundamental part of that strategy. The research is clear that having adequate family income during and after pregnancy can alter children’s futures, yet racist policies have historically denied Black families equal access to cash assistance and other supports. With an economic crisis looming in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, cash supports are even more critical for pregnant mothers who have lost earnings.
Gia’s experience exemplifies the need for financial supports for a healthy pregnancy and parenting. She had many health concerns surrounding the pregnancy and birth of her twins — Would they be placed in the ICU? Would she have to undergo an emergency c-section? How long would it take to recover after giving birth? Access to cash assistance programs alleviated some of her worries by enabling her to get to medical appointments, pay bills, and prepare for her two new bundles of joy.
Pregnancy is already a stressful time for women, especially those having trouble making ends meet. High stress levels for the mother can impair the baby’s developing brain, lead to pre-term and/or low-weight babies, and worsen the mother’s health. Increased financial resources can help an expecting mother meet her basic needs and her unborn child’s, relieving some of her stress and improving birth outcomes.
Research shows that unconditional cash payments to pregnant mothers in Uruguay and Canada and the 1990s expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in the U.S. were associated with higher birth weights for children. The EITC expansion was also linked to better health for the mothers.
When Gia’s daughter was a toddler, they struggled financially. She was unemployed and in graduate school, living doubled up with relatives. After the twins’ birth, she had trouble affording double the baby essentials, like diapers and formula. She also was diagnosed with postpartum depression and experienced depressed mood, insomnia, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and feelings of inadequacy. It was cash assistance, efficient health providers, and the WIC nutrition program that helped her afford the basics during these difficult times.
The period from birth to three is a critical period of cognitive development that affects a child’s future trajectory. Parents and other caregivers are key to that development. When parents are stressed, depressed, or struggling to pay the rent, they cannot always focus on their child’s needs.
Cash assistance (along with other supports) can make a big difference. A study in India found that a one-time payment to mothers was associated with reduction in maternal depression, especially in the first year after birth. And a U.S. study found that an additional $3,000 in annual income for families with very young children and income below $25,000 is associated with a 17 percent increase in adult earnings when those children grow up.
Gia had a supportive health team to help her, including a physician and health educator. Her experiences as a Black mother for the past 11 years speak to the importance of maternal health and of access to public resources like cash assistance, both of which affected how she felt about herself as a human being.
Policymakers interested in improving Black maternal and infant health should expand access to cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and end sanction practices that disproportionately block Black families from getting needed cash assistance. Policymakers also should push forward proposals that raise the incomes of families unable to make ends meet. In the next COVID response package, federal lawmakers should include more cash supports to all families, including immigrant families. And every state should do more to boost TANF benefits to families .
Finally, policymakers should significantly expand the EITC and Child Tax Credit — both of which especially benefit women of color—by passing legislation such as the Working Family Tax Relief Act.
Motherhood shouldn’t be tainted because of someone’s skin color or economic status. Every Black mother deserves to feel supported, to have access to resources, and to enjoy the beauty of birth and child rearing.
Gia Jones is an advocate and writer and Ife Floyd is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They wrote this piece for Black Maternal Health Week which is an opportunity to deepen the national conversation about Black maternal health in the US. Learn more here: https://blackmamasmatter.org/bmhw/