28 December 2007

Headed In The Right Direction?

My mother was dirt poor growing up growing up in North Florida. She got out as fast as she could. Like many other poor Southerners in the 1940s, she headed to Chicago, where she graduated from Mount Sinai Hospital's nursing program.

Not too long ago she mused aloud how her life might have been different if her family hadn't been so poor when she was growing up. The casual observer might think that she'd done OK, poor childhood or not. Indeed, all the Joiner kids were part of the karmic reward of the American dream lifting all boats after World War II. All five siblings made it to the middle class, all but one, in fact, to the upper middle class. My mother and her younger sister married doctors; her older sister became a nurse and married a teacher, and the youngest sister married a city planner. My uncle became an engineer. My own mother never worked outside the home after her first child was born. She lived in a sprawling suburb of big houses on oversize lots and took a nap every afternoon.

But the naps, rather than giving insight into some innate laziness on her part (and there is some of that — in a never-ending rebuke to her own, driven mother), are more a legacy of the malignant effects of poverty. Debilitating, health sapping poverty. The Southern variety. My mother's health was never good, her stamina nonexistent.

The Public Library of Science's journal of Neglected Tropical Diseases has a piece on current U.S. health disparities. It's a reminder of how close the connection is between health and success.
During the early 20th century hookworm was a highly endemic soil-transmitted helminth infection in the American South, and a major cause of severe anemia and malnutrition in the region. Together with malaria, niacin deficiency (pellagra), typhoid fever, ascariasis, trichuriasis, and other conditions common to areas of tropical and subtropical poverty, hookworm helped to foster the concept of the “sick man of the South” or the “lazy Southerner.” The poverty-promoting aspects of these diseases are powerfully illustrated by the recent work of the economist Hoyt Bleakley, who has estimated that because of its impact on child growth and development, school performance, and school attendance, chronic hookworm infection in the American South was responsible for a 43% reduction in future wage-earning.
The writer's conclusion? "There are no excuses for allowing such glaring health disparities to persist in one of the world's wealthiest countries."

Except that, of course, there are plenty of excuses. A couple trillion dollars worth of excuses. Ask a progressive. They'll explain why real health care reform — that is, the proven reform that universal, single-payer health care brings, just isn't feasible.

And as long as that's the progressives' line, it's true. And as long as that's true, our nation will continue heading in the wrong direction, towards a developing world status in health care, education, and the chasm of disparity between rich and poor.

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