My mother was 16 when she had me. Back then, she had to drop out of school to take care of me — to make sure that I was well-nourished and had the kind of healthy start to life that every child needs. She was young, afraid, and in some ways very much lost. It would have been hard for us to make it through this difficult time if it were not for the love and support of my grandparents.
That was 44 years ago. Families like mine have advanced in some ways, but in so many others, it is just as hard today to have and raise a child safely and affordably. On Mother’s Day 2020, that is especially true in South Carolina.
The Palmetto State ranks eighth-to-last for maternal mortality among new mothers. At 25.5 deaths per 100,000 live births, South Carolina is losing young mothers at a rate far above the national average of 17.4 deaths per 100,000. And like many other issues here, massive racial disparities persist. Most shockingly, the maternal mortality rate for African-American South Carolina mothers is more than triple the rate observed for white mothers.
Why is this occurring in our state? Well, just two years ago, 14 of our 46 counties here in South Carolina had no OB-GYNs. Leadership here is still turning away the massive opportunities that would come with expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a large reason why four full-service hospitals have closed in the past seven years. Denying these dollars means no healthcare coverage for an estimated 300,000 South Carolinians who would otherwise qualify, many of whom are poorer, working African-American families in rural areas. All of this means that far too many South Carolina women do not have affordable access to quality prenatal, delivery, and postnatal care options – when and where they need it.
Maternal health among African-American women has for a long time been woefully inadequate, especially in comparison to what the average white woman goes through. But this pandemic is making these sort of long-standing health inequalities clearer than ever. While African-Americans make up 27 percent of South Carolina’s population, 53 percent of reported coronavirus deaths and a full 44 percent of confirmed cases have been African-Americans, according to our state’s health department.
And as certain parts of the economy slowly open back up in South Carolina while the schools remain closed, the pandemic will also be shedding light on the lack of affordable childcare options available to working families. A 2019 survey by The State newspaper found many South Carolina parents having to pay between $100 and $200 a week for a daycare center – a price tag simply out of reach for a state that still hasn’t raised the minimum wage from a measly $7.25, the federal minimum set more than 10 years ago.
South Carolina has lagged behind other states in enacting paid family leave laws. And without expanded paid family leave mandated at a federal level, this means a Palmetto State mother too often has to choose between raising their newborn child or continuing to work. For many families, missed paychecks can be the difference between making rent and having no place to stay.
It should not be this hard to safely have and raise a child in South Carolina, especially for African-American women who raise our youth and work one or two jobs every day just to put food on the table. We can make expanded paid family leave the federal standard, not the exception. We can expand tax credits so that parents here can actually afford childcare that enriches their children’s development. And, we can invest in our rural hospitals and expand Medicaid so that every South Carolina mother has access to the care that she and her baby require.
Boosting the economy in 2020 means lifting up our mothers and young children. Supporting them helps maintain a healthy workforce, improves educational outcomes, and allows women to keep contributing to our economic growth.
Few things are more important than making sure our kids have healthy starts to their lives. We need leadership who speaks truth to these inequalities and works hard to fix them. That is the kind of Senator I plan to be.
Jaime Harrison is a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.