Money, wealth and health

Is there a link between poverty and how long a people live?

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday chaired a Senate hearing on that topic, presenting compelling statistics on income levels and availability of health care while, at the same time, a new census report showed that poverty levels had soared to a two decade high.

"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.

According to a report released at the hearing, "this is the first time in our history that children born in certain parts of the United States can expect to live shorter lives than their parents' generation."

The Census Bureau on Tuesday reported that the number of Americans living in poverty rose to 15.1 percent in 2010. The same report also stated that about 49.9 million Americans lacked health insurance. For context, that about 13.3 million more than in 2000. However, it should be noted that there was no statistical difference in the number of Americans without health insurance over the previous year.

Some more food for thought, according to an MSNBC report:

-- The number of families in poverty has risen from 8.8 million in 2009 to 9.2 million in 2010.

-- For children under 18, the poverty rate rose from 20.7 percent to 22 percent.

-- For those aged 18 to 64, it increased from 12.9 percent to 13.7 percent.

Consider this: According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has both the highest overall poverty rate and the highest childhood poverty rate of any major industrialized country. For context, child poverty rates are drastically lower in places like France (9.3 percent), Germany (8.3 percent), Iceland (6.7 percent), Finland (5.3 percent) and Denmark (3.7 percent).

"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 during the hearing.

At a time of medical breakthroughs in treatments for cancer and other terrible diseases, according to a release from Sanders' office, the reality is that life expectancy for low-income women has declined over the past 20 years in 313 counties in the United States.

For sake of comparison, the release states, those who qualify as the top 20 percent of American incomes live, on average, at least 6 and a half years longer than those in the lowest income group.

"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."

Bruce Meyer, a public policy professor at the University of Chicago, agrees with Sanders' sentiment. He told the Associated Press that those numbers could get ever worse, specifically pointing to "staggeringly high" levels of long-term unemployment and the ever rising demand for food stamps.

These facts and figures should come as little surprise to many readers. Vermonters, especially in Windham County, have a good sense of the plight of their friends and neighbors, that's why there's always a solid reaction to community related efforts for the United Way, Feed the Thousands, the Reformer Christmas Stocking ... even today, the rescheduled Load the Latchis event at Brattleboro Savings & Loan gives folks the opportunity to help out those in need.

Still, it's clear that more -- much more -- needs to be done at the federal level. Pres. Obama's new jobs plan is a potential good first step, but it's only a step. Job creation, social service funding, effective cost cutting and a closer look at policy and oversight of private sector financial activities -- this all needs to be done to fix what has obviously become a broken system.

Dr. Paula Braveman, head of the Center on Social Disparities in Health at the University of California San Francisco, testified at Tuesday's Senate hearings 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."

It's time we start thinking about the future.