Milwaukee's 'Misery Index': Infant Mortality

Dec 4, 2011
Originally published on December 4, 2011 5:32 pm

Impoverished Third World countries often find themselves at the bottom of lists when it comes to infant mortality rates. There is a part of Milwaukee where the infant mortality rate is worse than in parts of rural China. One baby dies for every 59 that make it.

John Schmid reported on this shift in the city's health for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a part of its series "Empty Cradles."

Schmid normally reports on the economy, but there is a direct link between a city's infant mortality and its economic health. He told Rachel Martin, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered, that there are clear correlations between infant mortality and "mothers who live with chronic anxiety, financial stress, evictions."

As recently as the 1970s, Milwaukee's thriving industrial base attracted low-income workers from the South in droves. But recent globalization sent many of those jobs overseas. As Milwaukee's industry moved to China, so did its low infant mortality rate.

As Schmid puts it, "In some ways, we consider it the ultimate misery index."

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This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

The highest levels of infant mortality happen where you'd think they'd happen: in poor developing countries - Afghanistan, Haiti, Sub-Saharan Africa. The United States ranks the 48th best out of all countries, according to the CIA, which isn't great, considering the U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world.

But what's more surprising is that there's a part of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a particular zip code, where the infant mortality rate is worse than in parts of rural China.

John Schmid reported on this for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He joins us now. Hi, John.

JOHN SCHMID: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: In your piece, you say that in Milwaukee, one baby under the age of 12 months dies for every 95 who live. How does that rank just to other cities in the United States?

SCHMID: Seventh worst.


SCHMID: And incidentally, one generation ago, Milwaukee was one of the safest in Guangzhou, which is in the southern Chinese manufacturing heartland. One baby under 12 dies for every 210 live births.

MARTIN: Why choose Guangzhou? Is there an economic link between these two cities? Do they share some kind of economic heritage?

SCHMID: They have almost a diametrically mirror opposite economic trajectory for the past 30 years. In age of globalization, Milwaukee's industry shifted into reverse, as did its infant mortality rates. In an age of globalization, Guangzhou, southern China, became a booming export-driven manufacturing powerhouse, and its infant mortality rates fell. So we chose a city that does very well today what Milwaukee used to do a generation ago.

In terms of the zip code, why choose that zip code, it was the one that stood out as having the highest rate of infant mortality. So it was...

MARTIN: This is - and this is the zip code of 53210, correct?

SCHMID: That's correct. On the northwest side of Milwaukee, a very quiet place, once upon a time in what I call the pre-global era back when the United States - back when Milwaukee operated in sort of an insular national economy. In those days, you had a dense concentration of factories inside of the zip code running like a corridor right through it. Now it's dead space. Now it's a ghost town. Now it's an industrial graveyard.

MARTIN: And what is the infant mortality rate there?

SCHMID: Seventeen deaths per 1,000 live births. The United States is seven per thousand. It's three or two in most of Europe, two in Japan, three in post-unification Germany.

MARTIN: So you come at this from an economic perspective and you've been covering the economic transformation of Milwaukee. Explain the link between the economy and infant mortality rates.

SCHMID: Well, the place to start to answer that question is how medical researchers traditionally had looked at this problem. They looked at all the internal biological factors for many years. Empirically, they couldn't really discern any particular trend. It wasn't until they looked at external factors, most notably socioeconomic ones, where they began to see very clear correlations between people who live - women, mothers - who live with chronic anxiety, financial stress, evictions.

Infant mortality - in some ways, we considered it the ultimate misery index, but it measures more than just the death of infants. It almost always coincides with a plethora of other health problems: high blood pressure, low overall life expectancy, diabetes, to name a few. It becomes for many - social scientists and many medical researchers - one of the ultimate barometers of overall social well-being.

MARTIN: John, what's been the reaction to your story?

SCHMID: The city of Milwaukee, as the Journal Sentinel has been pounding out these stories all year long, has taken strides and begun to take some responsibility on this issue. Most recently, it announced a new initiative, a new five-year initiative to try to bring the overall city infant mortality rate to its lowest rate that it's ever been.

There is a program that has gotten under way recently. This is a consortium of hospitals and activists, and they're working with some medical researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The budget is something like 10 million over five years. So collectively, they will work with what they've got to do what they can to move the needle. But the researchers themselves say that's a drop in the bucket.

MARTIN: John Schmid writes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. You can find a link to his story at our website, John, thanks very much for sharing your reporting.

SCHMID: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.