Sunday, July 10, 2016

New Deal dental clinics for children

Above: The description for this photograph reads, "Kanawha County, West Virginia - Dental Clinic showing the oral hygienist cleaning teeth of school children with an NYA worker in attendance." During the New Deal, health care workers & trainees were employed in public work programs--like the Works Progress Administration and National Youth Administration--and addressed the health care needs of non-wealthy Americans. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

According to the National Children's Oral Health Foundation (NCOHF), "Dental care is the most prevalent unmet health need of children in the United States," and "An estimated 16 million children in America have untreated tooth decay." The CDC adds, "Tooth decay (cavities) is one of the most common chronic conditions of childhood in the United States. Untreated tooth decay can cause pain and infections that may lead to problems with eating, speaking, playing, and learning."

America should be increasing the amount of  dental care it provides to children (and adults too), not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because it's the economically smart thing to do. As the NCOHF points out, "For every $1 spent on oral health preventive measures, American taxpayers are saved as much as $50 in restorative and emergency procedures for the under and uninsured." In other words, as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Unfortunately, the political right has brutally, callously, and falsely labeled low-income Americans as "takers," thereby turning Americans against one another. This foolishness contributes to children having unmet dental care needs, and also ends up costing us more money in the long run.

During the New Deal, the WPA operated dental clinics all across the nation. For example, "in some rural areas the WPA operated mobile dental clinics, staffed with a dentist, nurse, and clerk, that went in trailers from school to school" (Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, p. 69). New Deal policymakers saw this as a way to get unemployed health care professionals back to work, while at the same time addressing a very important, unmet need. Today, few of our policymakers possess this sort of common sense.

Above: WPA poster, image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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