After my June 17-23 column, “The census is a wealth of enlightening information,” was published, I got to talking with my friend Carly Hurdle about how fertility rates are affected by race, according to census data reported by the Long Island Association. Even before the pandemic, Black and Hispanic families were having fewer babies than white families.
Carly was a student at Adelphi University while I was president. She said that a number of her married Black friends have little desire to bring children into this world because of the mental, physical and emotional abuse to which they would be subjected. At the same time, the maternal mortality rate is significantly higher for Blacks than it is for whites. And Black babies are more than three times more likely to die in a neonatal intensive care unit. Consequently, life expectancy is significantly lower than it is for whites.
With this as background, we decided to explore the issues further. Racial health disparities were laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic. On Long Island, three Black people died of Covid-19 for every white person, even though Blacks make up only 11 percent of the population. One cause: 49 percent of Black and Hispanic workers are essential workers in front-line service-industry jobs, compared with just 16 percent of non-Hispanic whites.
These front-line jobs were among the first to be cut last year. Overall, Black and Hispanic unemployment is double that of whites, a gap that has persisted since data by race were first reported in 1972. When you look closely at economic insecurity, including student debt, graduating in a recession and the inability to afford a home, parenthood is viewed as an expense to be deferred.
The consequences of a resulting population decline are manifold for our country and region. With a decline, the higher ratio of retirees to new graduates means that funding for pensions and health care will likely mean less support for education. With a decline, and without a smart immigration policy, we need to be concerned about who will start new businesses and who will staff existing ones. Who will run for school boards, town councils and other civic offices? Who will become the scientists and engineers so essential for our region’s economic well-being? Who will create the art and music that will inspire us? Who will study the past to expose its lessons?
A New York Times survey states, “This generation is as likely as not to earn less than their parents. Among people who did not plan to have children, 23 percent said it was because they were worried about the economy. A third said they couldn’t afford child care, 24 percent said they couldn’t afford a house and 13 percent cited student debt.” Among communities of color, such apprehensions are exacerbated because of job and housing discrimination, and a fear of poverty.
According to the Syosset-based Erase Racism, as well as surveys elsewhere, housing discrimination and racial segregation not only affect employment prospects, housing, wealth accumulation and intergenerational wealth transfer, but also employment prospects and schooling for children. One result is that majority Black and Hispanic schools have 37 percent fewer Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses than in 70 to 90 percent white schools. Additionally, the remote learning offered by schools during the pandemic put a spotlight on unequal access to Wi-Fi, bandwidth and computing equipment.
Erase Racism also reports that “when students are blocked from more challenging classes and other educational resources, they face added challenges in pursuing higher education relative to their peers who attended schools with better funding.” These factors also affect parenting decisions, because people know that their children, especially sons, will be faced with racism and stress, both of which can result in academic, behavioral and health problems.
As if these stresses weren’t enough, Black mothers wonder if their children will have clean water to bathe in and drink in 20 years. They are concerned about air quality and food safety as well as the political climate that seems to grow increasingly contentious.
The truth is that racism is a public health issue. Babies have rights, and we need them for our nation’s economic and cultural security. Other countries support child care programs to help reverse declining fertility rates. We can address the birth dearth by advancing opportunities for employment, housing, health care and child care for all, and by confronting and defeating persistent and institutional racism. It just makes sense. Yes, Black lives matter. If we don’t succeed in making progress in creating a more equitable society, we will all suffer.
Robert Scott is president emeritus of Adelphi University. Carly Hurdle is CEO of Blaq Gurl Moves.