The politics hypothesis and racial disparities in infants' health in the United States

SSM Popul Health. 2019 Jul 6;8:100440. doi: 10.1016/j.ssmph.2019.100440. eCollection 2019 Aug.


We propose the politics hypothesis-i.e., the hypothesis that political forces comprise either a powerful predecessor of the social determinants of health or are essential social determinants of health themselves. We examine the hypothesis that political actors like presidents, their ideology, and institutions like the political parties they represent shape overall and race-specific health outcomes. Using census and Vital Statistics data among many other sources, we apply both theory- and data-driven statistical methods to assess the role of the president's party and the president's political ideology as predictors of overall and race-specific infant mortality in the United States, 1965-2010. We find that, net of trend, Republican presidencies and socially-conservative ideology of U.S. presidents are strongly associated with slower declines of infant mortality rates, overall and for white and black infants, compared to Democratic and socially-liberal presidents in the U.S. Approximately half (46%) of the white-black infant mortality gap, about 20,000 additional infant deaths, and most if not all the infant mortality rate gap between the U.S. and the rest of the developed world, can be attributed to the 28 years of Republican administrations during the study period. These findings are consistent with the politicization of public health and the conceptualization of politics as a powerful predecessor, in the causal chain, of the social determinants of health. Understanding the political ideological and institutional contexts in which health policies and healthcare and welfare programs are implemented, as well as how governments construct culture and social psychology, provide a more comprehensive framework for understanding and improving population patterns of disease, mortality, and entrenched racial disparities in health in the U.S.

Keywords: Health gradient; Infant mortality; Infants' health; Political parties; Politics hypothesis; Presidents; Racial disparities in health; Social determinants of health.