"Blessed are the children," reads the Psalm, "Blessings and joy shall be theirs. Theirs is the bounty, the fruit of the vine. Their's is the joy of God's care."
And in Mississippi and much of the South, God's care is about all that poor children can hope for.
In those states, babies are dying in higher numbers. On Sunday, Erik Eckholm reported in the New York Times that the infant mortality rate — the deaths by age of 1 per thousand live births – jumped sharply in Mississippi in 2005 from 9.7 to 11.4. Smaller rises also occurred in Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee. We haven't heard from Louisiana and South Carolina yet. In comparison, the national average in 2003, the last year for which there is data, was 6.9 percent.
Not surprisingly, beneath this average is a stark contrast by race. In Mississippi, among Blacks, infant deaths were 17 per thousand; among Whites, 6.6 percent (The national average in 2003 was 5.7 for Whites and 14 for Blacks).
Mississippi officials, Eckholm reports, express "shock" at the results, even as they deny that there is any connection between the cutbacks in Medicaid and children's health care. They blind themselves to the obvious.
Poverty has been rising in Mississippi. Welfare and health care for poor mothers has been cut. In 2004, Mississippi elected Gov. Haley Barbour, the former chair of the Republican National Committee and big-time corporate lobbyist. Attuned to movement conservatives, Barbour came to office after campaigning against taxes and for cuts in spending. And he kept his promise.
The state erected more barriers to make it harder for poor mothers. Face to face meetings were required for annual re-enrollment in Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Information about what was available, as well as hours that offices were open, were cut back. Poor mothers without transportation found it hard to meet the new standards.
Maria Morris resigned last year from the office tasked with informing mothers about how to become eligible after her program was slashed. "The philosophy," she said, "was to reduce the rolls." It worked. As Eckholm reports, the number of non-elderly people, mainly children, covered by the Medicaid and CHIP programs declined by 54,000 in the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years.
They cut support for poor children and mothers. And infants began dying in larger numbers – with Mississippi's impoverished African American mothers disproportionately the victims.
This isn't rocket science. Barbour probably doesn't actually want to kill innocent children, but his policies do just that. As Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director for the Children's Defense Fund put it: "When you see drops in the welfare rolls, when you see drops in Medicaid and children's insurance, you see a recipe for disaster. Somebody's not eating, somebody's not going to the doctor and unborn children suffer."
We know that investment in pre-natal care, in health care, in adequate nutrition, in young parent education works. Mississippi has a perfect example. Sharkey County, one of the poorest counties in the state, has one of the lowest infant mortality rates – less than the national average. State officials dismiss this as a statistical hiccup, but experts say the steep drop in infant deaths came after creation of an intensive home visiting system run by the Cary Christian Center. "If this is a fluke it's a 15-year fluke," said Dr. Christina Glick, a doctor specializing in infant health.
The program, which is paid for with private money, buses nearly all pregnant Blacks in Sharkey and a small neighboring county to pre- and postnatal classes.
"Suffer the little children to come unto me," said Jesus, for "theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." But not in Mississippi and much of the South. Officials there would rather cut spending on poor mothers and children to cut taxes on the affluent, rather than invest in the programs that we know will save the lives of infants.
We are headed for a reckoning in this country. In New Orleans, the poor are still displaced. The poor wards have not been rebuilt. Throughout the country, poor children – particularly those of people of color – are being locked out. Undocumented workers are now becoming the modern equivalent of the mythical "welfare queen," the excuse used to cut back programs of support.
But it is the most innocent – the infants who can not choose who brings them into the world – suffer the callousness of the powerful and the morally blind.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights activist and founder/president of the RainbowPUSH Coalition.