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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Compare and Contrast

A while back, Jane Galt quoted a passage that caught her eye from a National Review article about Germany:
Indeed, to Schroeder's eye, there is hardly anything worth cutting, right down to the generous dental benefits. "“I do not want to return to an era when you can judge someone'’s wealth by the state of their teeth," ”he observed.
Galt thinks the poor get pretty fine dental care in the U.S., pontificating:
The reason that I comment on this is that one thing you can't tell people's wealth by, in the dog-eat-dog dystopia that is America, is their teeth. Their sports gear, their vacations, their choice of dinner spot, yes, but not their teeth, at least not where I am.
Instapundit Glenn Reynolds found the whole thing pretty funny. Galt's post caught my eye too, because it seemed pretty callous and uniformed. Out of sight, out of mind, say Galt and Reynolds. Last week, the unblinking Malcolm Gladwell supplied the perfect rebuttal in a fascinating New Yorker article about health care in America.
Several years ago, two Harvard researchers, Susan Starr Sered and Rushika Fernandopulle, set out to interview people without health-care coverage for a book they were writing, "“Uninsured in America."” They talked to as many kinds of people as they could find, collecting stories of untreated depression and struggling single mothers and chronically injured laborers--and the most common complaint they heard was about teeth. Gina, a hairdresser in Idaho, whose husband worked as a freight manager at a chain store, had "a peculiar mannerism of keeping her mouth closed even when speaking." It turned out that she hadn't been able to afford dental care for three years, and one of her front teeth was rotting. Daniel, a construction worker, pulled out his bad teeth with pliers. Then, there was Loretta, who worked nights at a university research center in Mississippi, and was missing most of her teeth. "They'll break off after a while, and then you just grab a hold of them, and they work their way out,"” she explained to Sered and Fernandopulle. "“It hurts so bad, because the tooth aches. Then it'’s a relief just to get it out of there. The hole closes up itself anyway. So it'’s so much better."”


If your teeth are bad, you'’re not going to get a job as a receptionist, say, or a cashier. You'’re going to be put in the back somewhere, far from the public eye. What Loretta, Gina, and Daniel understand, the two authors tell us, is that bad teeth have come to be seen as a marker of "“poor parenting, low educational achievement and slow or faulty intellectual development."” They are an outward marker of caste. "“Almost every time we asked interviewees what their first priority would be if the president established universal health coverage tomorrow,"” Sered and Fernandopulle write, "“the immediate answer was '‘my teeth.'"”
Like Galt and Insty, I also rarely (but not never) see people with really bad teeth. No doubt like them, the poorest people I regularly come into contact with are behind the cash register or sweeping the floors. I don't ride the early-morning bus with home health care aides or spend much time in slaughterhouses with poultry workers. But unlike Galt and Reynolds, I don't assume because I rarely see it in my day to day life that a problem doesn't exist.

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