How can New Jersey close its infant mortality gap?

The emergency meeting called by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman was a fact-finding, solution-seeking panel to what’s become one of the most alarming statistics about New Jersey: children of black mothers are three times as likely to die before the age of one as those born to white women.

“New Jersey has been a tale of two cities. We have very affluent New Jersey and very poor New Jersey, and I think over the last eight years we’ve neglected the poorer parts of New Jersey,” said Watson Coleman.

The overall infant mortality rate in New Jersey is one of the lowest in the country. But a significant gap remains. Data shows the state has the third largest racial disparity in infant deaths among black and white babies in the nation.

“We don’t talk about the root cause of all of this, which is this enormous historical and not even historical, legacy of racism that goes on in this country. Research has shown us that higher housing segregation contributes to poorer schools, poorer access to health care, poor birth outcomes and more violence in communities,” said Dr. Denise Rodgers, vice chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.

“If you’re a black mama in Atlantic City, 29 times per 1,000 live births your baby is not going to make it,” said Barbara Ostfled, the program director of the SIDS Center of New Jersey.

Panelists called for an infant bill of rights, advanced wrap-around services in communities and legislation to even the economic playing field.

“So often the solutions that get pointed to are more things African-American women need to do as opposed to more things the system needs to do to make it work better for African-American women,” said Acting Commissioner of Human Services Carole Johnson.

“We used to have Planned Parenthood who used to do prenatal care. Henry J. Austin used to do prenatal care, St. Francis used to do prenatal care and even deliveries and Robert Wood Johnson hospital in Hamilton used to do prenatal care and deliveries, all of that has gone away,” said June Gray, director of family support interventions for Children’s Futures.

First Lady Tammy Murphy was an unexpected guest Monday. As a key player in the new administration, her presence was welcomed. She jotted notes and lobbed questions, saying addressing this issue is all part of the governor’s greater plan.

“It’s not just going to be one move on the chess board that’s going to change this outcome. This morning, for example, my husband had a roundtable on raising the minimum wage and earned sick leave, and I will just tell you, we heard raising the minimum wage by $1 has tremendous impacts on reducing this infant mortality rate,” she said.

Now this group wants an action-oriented task force to move forward so that these problems aren’t just reiterated, but changed.

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