America's Workplaces are Destroying Black Maternal Health

By: Ruth Cosse and Eduardo Hernandez

“America has never been a safe place for a Black woman to raise a child. It seems even more dangerous now for a Black woman to even consider having a child. Yet Black women continue showing up and doing more to help everyone, despite being treated as though our lives—our health and wellness—is not important.”

— Cherisse Scott, Founder of Sister Reach

The narrative around Black health in America is filled with racist ideology and discriminatory assumptions that place the blame of poor health outcomes solely on Black communities. A recent article in Slate Magazine challenges these assumptions, urging the country to stop blaming Black women for the Black maternal health crisis. Instead, we should examine workplace conditions and employer policies.

Racial discrimination continues to produce workplace inequities. Black women are expected to perform better than their white colleagues and are often assumed to be unqualified for their jobs. This has a toxic effect on Black mothers and their children.

As we close Black History Month and enter Women’s History Month, we should not only acknowledge the progress our country has made but also work to tear down barriers that continue to impact the healthy development of Black women and their children. 

When parents are healthy, they can better provide for their families and spend quality time with their children. White professional women often have access to reproductive technology due to privatized or employee-based health care, producing positive health outcomes for the mother and her baby. Conversely, low-income Black women with Medicaid can only access contraceptives.

Coupled with economic stress, such as low-wage work, the inadequate prenatal care many low-income pregnant women experience is associated with higher rates of preterm births and infant mortality.  Non-Hispanic Black women have the highest rate (16.3 percent) of preterm births, a key indicator of infant mortality. Non-Hispanic white women have one of the lowest rates (10.2 percent). The infant mortality rate for Black babies is twice that of the national average. And Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.

Paid leave is another workplace benefit Black women are often denied. In 2011, 41 percent of Black women had access to paid parental leave compared to 50 percent of white women.   Lack of paid leave can increase mothers’ risk of postpartum depression and make them less likely to breastfeed.  It also can prevent infants and toddlers from accessing the frequent well-baby visits since at that age many babies are susceptible to colds and other minor illnesses. Mothers are essentially forced to choose between their family’s health and a paycheck. This is especially true for Black mothers, 80 percent of whom are either the household’s sole earner or bring in nearly half of their household’s income. That’s compared to just 50 percent of white mothers.

We’ve seen incredible momentum in states and localities, but there is much more to be done. We urge federal, state, and local policymakers to advance legislation that enables people to balance their work and family lives and access affordable, culturally relevant health care. That includes passing the federal Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMILY) Act and Healthy Families Act to expand access to paid leave for Black mothers and people with low-incomes. At the same time, we must ensure funding and investments are made in state health care systems and local service providers to support Black mothers’ and their children’s healthy development.