With Mayor Lori Lightfoot, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-2nd) held a press briefing on her co-authored report, “State of Black Women and Girls in 21st Century America,” and her proposed legislation on Black maternal health up during this congressional session.
Kelly, who holds a master's degree in counseling, spoke of the increasing rates of Black maternal mortality and bias against Black women in health care and scientific institutions. Nationwide, 700 to 900 Americans die because of pregnancy- or birth-related complications each year, and Black women are up to 2½-times more likely to die than White women.
"In 2021, starting a family should not mean putting your life at risk, but the fact it, for far too many Black women, pregnancy means exactly that," she said.
Black women are underrepresented in research trials while government-funded research into health conditions with an outsized impact on Black women is, she wrote, citing a 2020 National Institutes of Health study, "chronically underfunded compared to diseases that affect fewer and/or almost exclusively whites."
Last September, Kelly's Caucus on Black Women and Girls introduced the Protect Black Women and Girls Act, which would have established a task force to examine conditions and experiences of Black women and girls in education, economic development, healthcare, labor and employment, housing, justice and civil rights and promote community-based methods for addressing harm and studying the societal impacts of these conditions.
It did not pass.
In November 2019, Kelly introduced the Helping MOMs Act, designed to have made it easier for states to expand Medicaid coverage for one-year-long postpartum periods instead of 60-day ones, as 70% of mothers have some complication within a year of giving birth. It passed the House, and Kelly wrote that she wants to introduce it again this Congress.
At the press conference, however, Kelly said a similar provision to the Helping MOMs Act was included in the American Rescue Plan, the third round of coronavirus-related stimulus and the first passed during President Joe Biden's administration, covering new mothers under Medicaid for an entire year
"We have a lot of work ahead of us to correct these disparities," she said. "Health inequities are not the only issue my daughter and other Black women are facing. Black women and girls are often moved to the back of the line when we talk about opportunity and empowerment. They are confronting issues and barriers that have been left unaddressed for generations."
Kelly said she and her colleagues will soon re-introduce the Protect Black Women and Girls Act to identify those obstacles and remedy them.
Asked what federal policy she would like to see come out to help Black women and girls in Chicago, Mayor Lightfoot stressed the importance of economic empowerment as equity and inclusion; i.e., "Seeing what Black women need, because that will have a catalytic effect across their families, across families and across our cities."
"I am a product of a grandmother who cleaned women's houses, a mom who was a care worker in nursing homes and mental institutions and who, at the end of her working career, was a home health care aid," she said. "All of those positions are sub-minimum wage, don't pay women for what they're worth and don't come with portable benefits."
She used some changes in Chicago as examples. Strengthening women's economic viability means strengthening their families, she said, as well as strengthening American cities and the country at large. She cited Chicago's 2019 fair-scheduling ordinance, which gave the city's workers, including those in the service industry, to ability to know their schedules "not hours in advance, but days in advance, so they can plan." That, Lightfoot said, benefits women who work multiple jobs, allowing them to manage cash flow and child care needs.
That ordinance also raised the city's minimum wage — though not for tipped employees — to $15 an hour this July. "We will lead the nation in that fact," Lightfoot said. "But with all of these tools, we have to lead with an eye on equity for sure, but particularly with a focus on women."
Kelly, asked about the genuine prospect of the bills' chances in this Congress, noted the Democrats' bare majorities, but said she had hope. She said her Caucus on Black Women and Girls also wants to see the White House Council on Women and Girls more empowered to deal with socioeconomic concerns like health and educational access, and she furthermore referenced President Biden's support for childcare funding and student loan relief.