How government gets answers

December 14, 1993|By Mona Charen

THE trouble with President and Mrs. Clinton can be captured in three words: They love government. And that makes them political fossils.

This is an age when many of the world's developed nations are facing the final crisis of socialism (Marx had predicted a final crisis for capitalism) -- high unemployment rates, low or negative economic growth, stifling bureaucracies and restless populations. From Bonn to Stockholm, Moscow to Tel Aviv, socialist and formerly communist states are facing the same wrenching problems. Remember the brave talk about Europe 1992? What became of that grand vision? It was stillborn -- starved for oxygen by bureaucracy and bloat.

If the Clintons succeed, the United States will head in the same direction.

Consider a new federal initiative just getting started in the District of Columbia. The National Institutes of Health are going to spend $58 million to study the reasons for Washington's high infant mortality rate. Three area hospitals, Georgetown, D.C. General and Howard University Hospital, will share in the gravy.

The program was created in response to congressional "concern" about the extremely high rate of infant death in Washington, higher than in many Third World countries. How do members of Congress express their feelings? They write checks with our money.

But this, like so much of the spending the federal government undertakes, is a fool's errand. Serious people who have studied infant mortality statistics already know well why Washington, D.C., babies fail to thrive. The causes have been understood for many years.

It would have been far, far better if the troubled members of Congress had picked up the Fall 1991 edition of The Public Interest rather than writing a $58 million check. In a thorough examination of the infant mortality problem, Nicholas Eberstadt refutes the notion that poverty or lack of available health care causes babies to die.

One of the leading proximate causes of infant mortality is low birth weight. Mr. Eberstadt reviewed the studies and found that while there is some correlation between poverty and low birth weight for blacks, there is none for whites. Moreover, he found that for both blacks and whites, a far more reliable predictor of infant health is the behavior of the parents.

One study, for example, found that "although infant mortality rates were twice as high for blacks as whites in 1986, infant mortality rates for black mothers who reported 13 to 16 prenatal medical visits were actually lower than the white national average."

The point of such statistics is not that prenatal care prevented illness or low birth weight in these children, but rather that parents who take their prenatal examination regime seriously are committed to the welfare of their unborn babies in other ways as well. White babies were found to be one-sixth more likely to be low birth weight if their parents described them as "mistimed or unwanted at conception" rather than wanted. Black babies who were described as unwanted were one-third more likely to be low birth weight.

The 400-pound gorilla, though, is illegitimacy. More than race, more than economic status, more than region, more than education, the factor that endangers the lives of infants is the legal status of their parents. So critical is this factor, writes Mr. Eberstadt, "that an American baby born to a teen-age mother is less likely to be born at low birth weight if the mother is married and black than if she is unmarried and white."

According to an eight-state survey in 1982, infant mortality rates for babies of women over age 20 were higher for unmarried but college-educated women than for married high school or even grade school dropouts.

Nevertheless, the federal government is now going to spend $58 million to find out why Washington, with one of the highest illegitimacy rates in the country, is losing so many of its babies.

The answer is available, for free, at any public library. But that's the little secret of the Washington game. The players don't really want answers. They want only to sup at the trough.

Mona Charen is a syndicated writer.

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