Is Poverty a Death Sentence?
September 13, 2011
Sen. Bernie Sanders cited dramatic evidence linking poverty and shorter life spans at a Senate hearing he chaired on Tuesday. A new census report, meanwhile, said more Americans than ever before lived in poverty last year. "Poverty in America today is a death sentence for tens and tens of thousands of our people which is why the high childhood poverty rate in our country is such an outrage," Sanders said in an opening statement at the hearing. The separate Census Bureau report also released on Tuesday said that more than 46 million Americans, about one in six, lived below the poverty line in 2010.
The census report also said that that about 49.9 million Americans lacked health insurance, a number that soared by 13.3 million since 2000.
The United States has both the highest overall poverty rate and the highest childhood poverty rate of any major industrialized country on earth, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. While 21.6 percent of American children live in poverty, the rate is 3.7 percent in Denmark, 5.3 percent in Finland, 6.7 percent in Iceland, 8.3 percent in Germany, 9.3 percent in France. "I suppose we can take some comfort in that our numbers are not quite as bad as Turkey (23.5 percent); Chile (24 percent); and Mexico (25.8 percent)," Sanders said.
At a time of medical breakthroughs in treatments for cancer and other terrible diseases, the reality is that life expectancy for low-income women has declined over the past 20 years in 313 counties in the United States. Those in the top 20 percent of American incomes live, on average, at least 6.5 years longer than those in the lowest income group.
"I recite these facts because I believe that as bad as the current situation is with regard to poverty, it will likely get worse in the immediate future," Sanders said. "As a result of the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street we are now in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. Millions of workers have lost their jobs and have slipped out of the middle class and into poverty. Poverty is increasing.
The hearing featured testimony from several key witnesses, including Dr. Garrett Adams. "I decided to establish a clinic in Beersheeba Springs, Tenn., because I had seen so many poor people who urgently needed health care." He described one patient with vascular disease who cannot afford heart surgery as "a walking time bomb."
Dr. Paula Braveman, head of the Center on Social Disparities in Health at the University of California San Francisco, testified about the lifelong effect of childhood poverty on health. "Reducing social and economic disparities in health affecting children will not only improve child health, it will increase opportunities to be healthy throughout life, because healthier children are more likely to grow up to be healthy adults."