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Obama’s NSA ‘Reforms’ Are Little More Than a PR Attempt to Mollify the Public

Posted on 31 January 2014 by John Johnson

Obama is draping the banner of change over the NSA status quo.
Bulk surveillance that caused such outrage will remain in place

by Glenn Greenwald

In response to political scandal and public outrage, official Washington
repeatedly uses the same well-worn tactic. It is the one that has been hauled
out over decades in response to many of America’s most significant political
scandals. Predictably, it is the same one that shaped President Obama’s
much-heralded Friday speech to announce his proposals for “reforming” the National
Security Agency in the wake of seven months of intense worldwide controversy.

Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency on 17 January 2014 from the Justice Department in Washington. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The crux of this tactic is that US political leaders pretend to validate and
even channel public anger by acknowledging that there are “serious
questions that have been raised”. They vow changes to fix the system and
ensure these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their
actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically
palatable with empty, cosmetic “reforms” so as to placate public
anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than
before to serious challenge.

This scam has been so frequently used that it is now easily recognizable. In
the mid-1970s, the Senate uncovered surveillance abuses that had
been ongoing for decades, generating widespread public fury. In response, the
US Congress enacted a new law (Fisa) which featured
two primary “safeguards”: a requirement of judicial review for any
domestic surveillance, and newly created committees to ensure legal compliance
by the intelligence community.

But the new court was designed to ensure that all of the government’s
requests were approved: it met in secret, only the government’s lawyers could
attend, it was staffed with the most pro-government judges, and it was even
housed in the executive branch. As planned, the court over the next 30 years
virtually never said no to the government.

Identically, the most devoted and slavish loyalists of the National Security
State were repeatedly installed as the committee’s heads, currently in the form
of NSA cheerleaders Democrat Dianne
Feinstein in the Senate and Republican Mike Rogers in the House. As the New
Yorker’s Ryan Lizza put it in a December 2013 article on the joke of Congressional oversight, the
committees “more often treat É senior intelligence officials like matinee
idols”.

As a result, the committees, ostensibly intended to serve an overseer
function, have far more often acted as the NSA’s in-house PR firm. The heralded mid-1970s reforms did more to make Americans believe there was reform than actually providing any, thus shielding it from real reforms.

The same thing happened after the New York Times, in 2005, revealed that the
NSA under Bush had been eavesdropping on Americans for years without the
warrants required by criminal law. The US political class loudly claimed that
they would resolve the problems that led to that scandal. Instead, they did the
opposite: in 2008, a bipartisan Congress, with the support of then-Senator Barack Obama, enacted a new Fisa law that legalized the bulk of the
once-illegal Bush program, including allowing warrantless eavesdropping on
hundreds of millions of foreign nationals and large numbers of Americans as
well.

This was also the same tactic used in the wake of the 2008 financial crises.
Politicians dutifully read from the script that blamed unregulated Wall Street
excesses and angrily vowed to rein them in. They then enacted legislation that
left the bankers almost entirely unscathed, and which made the “too-big-to-fail
problem that spawned the crises worse than ever.

And now we have the spectacle of President Obama reciting paeans to the
values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards.
“Individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress,” he gushed
with an impressively straight face. “One thing I’m certain of, this debate
will make us stronger,” he pronounced, while still seeking to imprison for
decades the whistleblower who enabled that debate. The bottom line, he said, is
this: “I believe we need a new approach.”

But those pretty rhetorical flourishes were accompanied by a series of
plainly cosmetic “reforms“. By design, those proposals will do little more than maintain rigidly in place the very bulk surveillance systems that have sparked such controversy and
anger.

To be sure, there were several proposals from Obama that are positive steps.
A public advocate in the Fisa court, a loosening of “gag orders” for national security letters, removing metadata control from the NSA, stricter standards for accessing metadata, and narrower authorizations for spying on friendly foreign leaders (but not, of course, their
populations
) can all have some marginal benefits. But even there, Obama’s
speech was so bereft of specifics – what will the new standards be? who will now control Americans’ metadata? – that they are more like slogans than serious proposals.

Ultimately, the radical essence of the NSA – a system of suspicion-less spying aimed at hundreds of millions of people in the US and around the world – will fully endure even if all of Obama’s proposals are adopted. That’s because Obama never hid the real purpose of this process. It is, he and his officials repeatedly acknowledged, “to restore public
confidence” in the NSA. In other words, the goal isn’t to truly reform the
agency; it is deceive people into believing it has been so that they no longer
fear it or are angry about it.

As the ACLU’s executive director Anthony Romero said after the speech:

The president should end – not mend – the government’s
collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data. When the
government collects and stores every American’s phone call data, it is engaging
in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the
constitution.

That, in general, has long been Obama’s primary role in our political system
and his premiere, defining value to the permanent power factions that run
Washington. He prettifies the ugly; he drapes the banner of change over
systematic status quo perpetuation; he makes Americans feel better about
policies they find repellent without the need to change any of them in
meaningful ways. He’s not an agent of change but the soothing branding
packaging for it.

As is always the case, those who want genuine changes should not look to
politicians, and certainly not to Barack Obama, to wait for it to be gifted.
Obama was forced to give this speech by rising public pressure, increasingly
scared US tech giants, and surprisingly strong resistance from the
international community to the out-of-control American surveillance state.

Today’s speech should be seen as the first step, not the last, on the road
to restoring privacy. The causes that drove Obama to give this speech need to
be, and will be, stoked and nurtured further until it becomes clear to official
Washington that, this time around, cosmetic gestures are plainly inadequate.

© 2014 The Guardian

Glenn Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national security
issues for the Guardian. A former constitutional lawyer, he was until 2012 a
contributing writer at Salon.  His most
recent book is, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to
Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful
. His other
books include: Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of
Republican Politics
A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the
Bush Presidency
, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a
President Run Amok
. He is the
recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism.

 

 

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Health Economists Ignore Working Class Realities

Posted on 03 December 2013 by John Johnson

by  Donna Smith  http://www.commondreams.org/donna-smith

Ah, the Affordable Care Act.  We’ve all been inundated with the stories about the rocky launch of Obamacare’s Healthcare.gov website, the policy cancellations that drop people from coverage rather than meet minimum standards required by the ACA, and other issues like the one I have faced with a deeply flawed subsidy/tax credit application process that required a lengthy and intrusive Medicaid application.

love_it

Some of these issues were predictable and preventable; others were not.

But one thing I keep hearing both political parties lament about is the lower than expected enrollments since the October 1 launch.  Republicans want to say that reflects the American public’s dislike of Obamacare; the Democrats want to point to the newness of the program and the computer glitches as problematic.  I want to give the health economists and the politicos who expected much higher numbers a little working class economics lesson.

Enrolling in a new health plan on the ACA/Obamacare exchange requires payment of the premium at the time of enrollment.  Many working class families live paycheck to paycheck or they are in the hole financially.  They make too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to make an additional insurance payment right now that can be put off until the last moment.  To be even clearer:  working class people like me do not have hundreds of extra dollars in the bank to make that new premium payment in advance of when it will take effect.  For many, like me, we are already paying a huge medical insurance premium (mine is $875 every month for individual COBRA/Aetna policy), and we’re in the hole trying to make that happen.

Hence, I will look at what’s available to me on the exchange – Connect for Health Colorado – but I will wait to actually enroll until I have the money to pay the premium.  Will that be tomorrow or December 1 or right before Christmas on December 15th (the last day to pay for the January 1st coverage)?  I do not know.  I just got the Medicaid denial this week after waiting 36 days. That wait prevent me from going forward to shop for coverage.  So, that’s a working class reality.

And while I am at it on this working class health economics lesson:  Who was the brain-child who decided the first payments would be due right in the middle of the holiday season?  Should parents short their holiday spending this year and just tell the kids, “Sorry, I have to pay two insurance premiums this month”? Should they be forced to pawn things or borrow from family to stay afloat?  Come on.  Please—those of you in charge in this country—please at least actually ask someone in the working class to comment on your efforts before assuming whatever you work up will actually be “affordable.”

I suspect many, many Americans like me will wait until the last moment to enroll for new coverage not because we want to do that but because we literally, financially speaking, have no choice. That’s working class health economics 101. And while they’re at it, why in the world didn’t Congress and the president consider and cost out a true money- saver and life-saver like improved and expanded ‘Medicare for All’? If they had, none of this would be happening and we’d all be looking forward to having access to affordable, humane health care with a single standard of high quality care on New Years Day.

That would have been a true holiday gift, not this “Bah Humbug” we are about to receive.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

http://www.commondreams.org/donna-smith

Donna Smith is the Executive Director of  http://www.healthcareforallcolorado.org
Health Care for All Colorado and the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation.

 

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Election Over: 5 Hard Realities

Posted on 05 December 2012 by John Johnson

Election Over: 5 Hard Realities Progressive Have to Face About

Obama

By Jeff Faux

Democrats must start mobilizing their own agenda now. And the first step is to face the truth about Obama’s record.

November 18, 2012  |

Terrorized by the prospect of a complete takeover of the U.S. government by right-wing reactionaries—progressive Democrats swallowed their unhappiness with Barack Obama throughout the campaign. They gamely defended his policies on the economy, health care, budget priorities and other issues on which they felt betrayed in his first term.

We’ve now dodged the bullet of a Mitt Romney White House, so let’s get back to reality. Despite his campaign-trail populism, the president will continue the politics of accommodation to conservatives. Two of the three priorities he has set out for his next term are at the top of the GOP agenda: a “grand bargain” to cut government spending over the next 10 years and corporate tax reform that would cut rates—don’t hold your breath—and close loopholes. The third priority, rationalizing immigration law, is one of the few progressive ideas that also has the support of the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.

Moreover, his next term’s policy advisers will be the same—or come from the same Washington/Wall Street executive personnel pool—as his last term’s advisers. Indeed, from the White House perspective, the election vindicated their first-term performance.

The core organizations of the Democratic base have vowed that after the election they will hold Obama’s “feet to the fire” with a Tea Party-style mobilization from the left—forcing votes on progressive proposals, organizing mass rallies and grooming their own candidates for the next congressional elections. They’ve sworn these oaths before, but after each election, they persuade themselves to give the leadership another chance. Soon the next election is upon them, and they line up for their marching orders.

If this time is to be different, progressive Democrats must start mobilizing their own agenda now. And the first step is to face the truth about the record of the president we have just re-elected. Here’s an initial reality check:

1. The economy still sucks

Three years into the recovery, we have an official unemployment rate of just under 8 percent and an underemployment rate of almost 15 percent. Incomes are declining and at least 12 million homeowners have mortgages that exceed the value of their houses. Consumers aren’t spending and therefore business is not investing. And we are still running a huge trade deficit with a sluggish global economy. This leaves government as the only possible source of substantial new spending to create jobs.

Yet there is no jobs program. President Obama says his top priority is a deal with House Republicans to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years. His “liberal” position starts with a ratio of spending cuts to tax increases of 2.5-to-1. The only real dispute between the president and Republicans is whether the rich will have to give back the tax breaks George W. Bush gave them. So when the eventual deal is struck, the federal government will be taking more out of the economy over the next decade than it is putting in. This virtually guarantees that—even if we escape another recession or financial meltdown—we will not reach anywhere near full employment in the next four years.

2. The low-wage future

With no new substantial source of stimulus, our trajectory is toward a further erosion of living standards for the majority of Americans. Off-shoring and automation will continue to shed jobs with no offsetting increase in the demand for labor. Budget cuts—including cuts to Medicare and Medicaid—will widen the holes in the social safety net and further limit investments in education, infrastructure and technology upon which any chance at future prosperity depends. And the White House’s indifference to the dramatic erosion of organized labor (e.g., its reneging on promises to reduce the barriers to organizing) will continue to undercut the bargaining power of all workers—union and non-union alike.

The president’s Council of Economic Advisers will not admit it, but their default strategy for growth is to let American wages drop far enough to undercut foreign competition. That is the only possible policy rationale for Obama’s enthusiasm for the Trans Pacific Partnership, a further deregulation of trade that will strip away the last protections for American workers against a brutal global marketplace of dog-eat-dog.

3. Obamacare: Health care dead-end

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was a victory for corporate America. In exchange for giving up their rules against covering pre-existing conditions and agreeing to raise the age limit in which children could be covered under their parents’ policy, the health insurance corporations got the federal government to require every citizen to buy their product and commit to subsidizing those that can’t afford the price. The pharmaceutical industry received even stronger government protection of their price-gouging monopolies. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that there will still be 30 million uninsured Americans by the end of the decade. Tens of millions more will be under-insured as the companies are free to raise their premiums and deductibles.

Although it abandoned the public option, the White House whispers to Democrats that Obamacare will pave the way for single-payer. Fat chance. The bill was inspired by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and largely drafted by a former insurance company executive precisely to stop single-payer from ever happening. Meanwhile, the corporate dominated health care system will continue to be a huge drag on our global competitiveness and long-term fiscal health.

4. The Dodd-Frank fig leaf

The Wall Street Reform Act required more transparency in the securities markets and marginally expanded the regulatory bureaucracy. But it did little to prevent a future return to the reckless speculation that exploded the economy four years ago. The largest companies now have a bigger share of the financial markets than they had in 2008 and their “too-big-to-fail safety net” is even more explicit.

Perhaps most important, nothing has been done to lengthen the horizons of U.S. investors from short-term, get-rich-quick financial speculation to the long-term investment in producing things and high-value services in America.

5. Big Money and the Democrats

The last four years have proven conclusively that corporations—especially from Wall Street—now dominate the most important economic policy decisions of the Democratic Party. With the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, the transformation from democracy to plutocracy is virtually complete. The corruption of our governing class goes beyond just campaign contributions. It can include the hint of a future job or lobbyist contract when you leave office, a hedge fund internship for your daughter, a stock market tip. But all this depends on your remaining in power, so nothing matches the importance of raising enough money to get yourself reelected.

Democratic leaders’ primary response to Citizens United has been a tepid proposal to require more transparency in campaign contributions. Even that, of course, could not succeed against Republican, and some Democratic, opposition. But even areas where the president could act alone—as with an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose political contributions or even filling vacant seats on the Federal Election Commission—Obama took a pass. In response to an interviewer’s question in August, he said that “in the longer term” we may need a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United. He is right. But the “longer term” certainly means sometime after he leaves office.

According to the White House, discontent on the left with these and other issues (e.g., climate change, civil liberties, military spending) represents little more than the carping of left-wing purists who don’t understand the need for compromise. But in fact, it reflects the harsh reality that the president’s intentions do not nearly reach to the level of the country’s serious problems. So the stakes for the nation are enormous. Without a radical shift away from the policies of the last four years, living standards of most people in the United States will continue to drop, with potentially ugly social and political consequences.

The stakes for Democrats are also high. Obama’s victory has reinforced the widespread notion among pundits that the projected future increase in the non-white voting population and the party’s advantage with women already makes it the favorite for 2016 and beyond. But it is precisely these constituencies that economic stagnation has hit the hardest. Whatever the demographic changes, if the Democratic Party produces another four years like the last four, it can kiss goodbye to the next election and probably several after that.

Jeff Faux is the founder and former president of the Economic Policy Institute and the author of the new book,  The Servant Economy: Where America’s Elite is Sending the Middle Class. 

 

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Unfettered Corporate Greed

Posted on 01 November 2012 by John Johnson

5 Ways America Is Being Hollowed Out by Unfettered Corporate

Greed

Paul Buchheit

There’s no free market — just businesses doing whatever they please with virtually zero accountability.

Conservatives believe that enriching individuals will eventually enrich society, and that government should not get in the way of the process. This is what happens as a result:

(1) The tax loss from one scheming businessman could have paid the salaries of 30,000 nurses

The lack of regulation in the financial industry allowed hedge fund manager John Paulson to conspire with Goldman Sachs in a plan to create packages of risky subprime mortgages and then short-sell (bet against) the sure-to-fail financial instruments. The ploy paid him $3.7 billion. Deregulation in the tax code allowed him to call his income “carried interest,” which is taxed at a 15% rate. More deregulation allowed him to defer his profits indefinitely.

The lost taxes of $1.3 billion (35% of $3.7 billion) could have paid the salaries of 30,000 LPNs, 10 nurses for every county in the United States. Instead, one clever businessman took it all.

(2) The 10 richest Americans made enough money last year to feed every hungry person on earth for a year

The richest 10 Americans increased their wealth by over $50 billion in one year. That’s enough, according to 2008 estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN’s World Food Program, to feed the 870 million people in the world who are lacking sufficient food.

But should anyone be blamed for this imbalance? Didn’t the rich people EARN their money through hard work and innovation? No, they didn’t. 60 percent of the income for the Forbes 400 came from capital gains. A lot more of it came from other forms of deregulatory subterfuge. CEOs have used carried interest, performance-related pay, stock options, and deferred compensation to make off with extra money that is only available to the beneficiaries of diminishing government.

(3) Avoided taxes could pay off the deficit — or pay for 20 million jobs

The backlash against government regulation has led to tax abuses that cost us almost a trillion dollars a year.

 

Corporations doubled their profits to $1.9 trillion in less than ten years, but since 2008 they’ve reduced their tax payments from a twenty-year average of 22% to just 10%. That’s a dropoff of over $225 billion.

Next, the Tax Justice Network estimated that up to $32 trillion is hidden offshore, untaxed. With Americans making up 40% of the world’s Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, and with a historical stock market return of 6%, $750 billion of income is lost to the U.S. every year, resulting in a tax loss of about $260 billion.

Finally, the IRS estimates that 17 percent of taxes owed were not paid, leaving an underpayment of $450 billion.

Add it up, and it’s almost the size of the U.S. deficit. All because of lax or non-existing regulations that allow wealthy individuals and corporations to avoid their tax responsibilities.

(4) An unregulated trading industry costs us another $350 billion a year in taxes

For a $10.00 purchase of children’s clothing, mothers pay up to a dollar in sales tax.

For a $10.00 purchase of financial instruments, investors refuse to pay one cent.

We had a financial transaction tax from 1914 to 1966, but it was repealed in an early surge of Congressional deregulation. Now, it is estimated that $350 billion could be generated every year, enough for almost ten million teachers or nurses or firefighters or medical technicians.

(5) Redistribution is destroying entrepreneurship in America

Largely because of financial deregulation, our country’s income and wealth keep moving to the top while the middle class shrinks. Entrepreneurship is going down with it.

Studies reveal that relatively few business startups are initiated by the very wealthy. Only 3 percent of the CEOs, upper management, and financial professionals were entrepreneurs in 2005, even though they made up about 60 percent of the richest .1% of Americans. Instead, they invest over 90% of their assets in a combination of low-risk investments (bonds and cash), the stock market, and real estate.

Entrepreneurs come from risk-takers in the middle class. But with financial deregulation causing a redistribution toward the top, the money has been taken out of the hands of middle-class innovators, resulting in a 53% decrease in the number of entrepreneurs per capita since 1977.

We’re at the mercy of the deregulators. But they have no mercy. The once-muscular entrepreneurial fiber of our country is being ripped apart, stretched to the limit, thinning in the middle until it eventually snaps in two.

Paul Buchheit teaches economic inequality at DePaul University. He is the founder and developer of the Web sites UsAgainstGreed.org, PayUpNow.org and RappingHistory.org, and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached at paul@UsAgainstGreed.org.

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More Than 46 Million Americans Still in Poverty

Posted on 01 October 2012 by John Johnson

More Than 46 Million Americans Still in Poverty

Salvatore Babones

15 percent of the US population lives in poverty. The poverty rate for children remains more than 20 percent for the third year in a row.

As state anti-poverty programs around the country confront severe budget cuts, today’s report indicates income inequality has reached an all-time high.

According to Census Bureau figures released today, 15 percent of the US population lives in poverty. In 2011, more than 46 million Americans lived below a poverty line that was set more than four decades ago, in 1969.

The poverty rate for children remains more than 20 percent for the third year in a row. More than one-third of black children and Hispanic children live in poverty.

In the words of Rep. Mike Honda (D-California), co-chair of the Congressional Out-of-Poverty Caucus, these figures are “a stark reminder that, although we are the wealthiest nation the world has ever known, far too many children are going to bed hungry.”

In fact, the USDA reports that more than 16 million American children are “food insecure.”

Today’s census report also contained bad news on incomes.

Median household income (adjusted for inflation) was down an additional 1.5 percent from the already-low levels of 2010. Median income is now 8.9 percent lower than it was in 1999.

Income inequality, as measured by the Gini index - the degree of income inequality, with 0 representing total equality and 100 representing total inequality – reached a new record high of 47.7 percent. A Gini index of 50 would be equivalent to half of the population receiving all of the country’s income, while the other half got nothing.

All this bad news comes against a backdrop of extraordinarily low employment rates. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just over 58 percent of the adult population has any kind of job at all (full or part time), the lowest figure in 30 years.

Only 64 percent of adult men have a job of any kind, the lowest figure ever.

Today’s official poverty rate of 15 percent is among the highest of the past 40 years. When the poverty line was first adopted in 1969, the poverty rate was just 12.1 percent.

The poverty line we use today was officially set on August 29, 1969. It represented a 1969 consensus of the basic minimum standard of living for American families in 1969. Other than adjusting for inflation, it has not been updated since.

In the technical discussions that preceded the official determination of the poverty line, experts considered a methodology that “would have resulted in poverty thresholds that were 25 percent to 30 percent higher than the existing thresholds,” according to research published in the Social Security Bulletin.

In essence, 15 percent of Americans today live in what would have been considered poverty in 1969, more than 40 years ago. Had our standards gone up over the past 43 years, even more Americans would now be identified as poor.

In many ways, poor Americans are even worse off than they have been in the past. For example, a record low 69.3 percent of Americans are now covered by private health insurance. Nearly 10 percent of children have no health insurance coverage at all.

And state anti-poverty programs around the country are facing severe budget cuts.

According to figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, America’s total economic output per person is now more than twice as high as it was in 1969 (adjusted for inflation).

With twice the resources, today’s America is much better placed to end poverty than was the America of 43 years ago.

Today’s Census Bureau report offers little cause for hope. After 43 years with no progress, poverty is now endemic in America. But we do have the financial means to reverse it, should we ever garner the political will.

Salvatore Babones (@sbabones) is a senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).

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Life Expectancy Decreases

Posted on 01 October 2012 by John Johnson

Shocker Stat of the Day: Life Expectancy Decreases by 4 Years Among Poor White People in the US

by Kathleen Geier

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on an alarming new study: researchers have documented that the least educated white Americans are experiencing sharp declines in life expectancy. Between 1990 and 2008, white women without a high school diploma lost a full five years of their lives, while their male counterparts lost three years. Experts say that declines in life expectancy in developed countries are exceedingly rare, and that in the U.S., decreases on this scale “have not been seen in the U.S. since the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918.” Even during the Great Depression, which wrought economic devastation and severe psychic trauma for millions of Americans, average life expectancy was on the increase.

What are the reasons for the disturbing drop in life expectancy among poor white folks, and in particular for the unusually large magnitude of the decline? According to the Times, researchers are baffled: one expert said, “There’s this enormous issue of why … It’s very puzzling and we don’t have a great explanation.” Undoubtedly, the increasing numbers of low-income Americans without health insurance is a major contributor factor. Researchers also say that lifestyle factors such as smoking, which has increased among low-income white women, play a role; poor folks tend to engage in more risky health behaviors than their more affluent counterparts.

I will offer an alternative hypothesis, one which is not explicitly identified in the Times article: inequality. In the U.S., the period between 1990 and 2008, which is a period that saw such steep declines in life expectancy for the least well-off white people, is also a period during which economic inequality soared. Moreover, there is a compelling body of research that suggests that inequality itself — quite apart from low incomes, or lack of health insurance — is associated with more negative health outcomes for those at the bottom of the heap. One of the most famous series of studies of the social determinants of health, Britain’s Whitehall Studies, had as their subjects British civil servants, all of whom health insurance and (presumably) decent enough jobs. Intriguingly, these studies

found a strong association between grade levels of civil servant employment and mortality rates from a range of causes. Men in the lowest grade (messengers, doorkeepers, etc.) had a mortality rate three times higher than that of men in the highest grade (administrators).

The Whitehall studies found that while workers in the lower grades were more likely to be at risk for coronary heart disease due to factors such as higher rates of smoking, higher blood pressure, etc., even after controlling for those confounding factors, these workers still experienced significantly higher mortality rates. So what was behind such disparate health incomes among high-status and low-status workers? Researchers pointed the finger at inequality, hypothesizing that various psychosocial factors associated with inequality — such as the higher levels of stress at work and at home experienced by the lower tier workers, as well as their lower levels of self-esteem — were behind the dramatic differences in mortality rates.

I believe that inequality-related stressors are likely to be the determining factors in declining American life expectancies, as well. I’m surprised, in fact, that the Times article did not specifically identify inequality as a causal factor, because the health risks associated with economic inequality are well-established in the scientific literature. For decades, the United States has been making a series of political choices that has distributed wealth and power upwards and left working Americans not only poorer and sicker, but also feeling far more burdened and distressed, and experiencing far less security and control over their lives. The consequences of these choices have been devastating, and absent a dramatic reversal in our political course, they are likely to get even worse. Where inequality is concerned, Republicans have their foot on the accelerator, while the best the Democrats seem to be able to do is to (temporarily) put their foot on the brake.

We are on a trajectory all right, and it’s not a good one.

 

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