People living in poverty are losing an average of six times more teeth by the age of 38, than people from wealthier backgrounds. A recent article highlights how poverty is driving poor people to take desperate measures to manage their own health issues. It describes a situation where a father, unable to afford to go to the dentist, took to using pliers and then a drill to remove his own teeth but still suffered the consequences two years later. Dentists say these ‘do it yourself’ style tooth extractions are common.
Another article shows that an extraordinary number of children are admitted to hospitals because of tooth decay. While the article fails to discuss the socio-economic elements of the problems they’re seeing, it is a no brainer that poverty is driving this problem. In fact, a recent report identifies that “[t]ooth decay is a disease of poverty – poorer members of society have significantly worse oral health than the wealthy”. There are even babies as young as 12 months old having teeth pulled out because of tooth decay. Some may argue that parents are responsible for what is happening to their children’s teeth or point out that we have ‘free’ dental clinics for under 18 year olds, however these types of criticisms ignore whether or not people have the resources to access these ‘free’ services (which is a whole other debate) or a healthy diet, especially given it’s cheaper to buy a bottle of fizzy drink than it is to buy a bottle of milk.
New Zealand’s ‘third world’ dental problems are so common that dentists have started a charity called ‘Revive a Smile’ and now a petition calling for Government to subsidise dental treatment, increase the age of ‘free’ dental care and remove GST from dental services.
The affordability of dental care and the impact this has on poor people is another example of how poverty is killing people. While I realise these type of statements may be controversial, as I have shown elsewhere there is substantial evidence to show that poor people are dying because of lack of resources, and poverty related dental problems are no exception. Untreated dental conditions can lead to more serious health conditions, including heart disease, stroke and a host of other health conditions, including depression and poor mental health.
Meanwhile, despite widespread concern about this chronic health problem, successive Labour and National led Governments have largely ignored the decaying teeth of our poorest families. While Work and Income make some provision for emergency dental treatment of $300 per year, it is not sufficient to cover the costs associated with long term dental decay and neglect. To add to that, over the last 20 odd years, successive Governments have not seen fit to increase the emergency dental grant amount, which has remained the same since 1996.
While the grant exists, it appears that Work and Income take a miserly approach to those seeking additional special needs grants to cover dental costs. In recent times I have dealt with cases where dentists or their administrators have not bothered with the necessary paper work, leaving people having to foot the dental bill (usually extractions because it’s cheaper) out of their food budget. I have also experienced instances where Work and Income have made it so difficult to access the payment that people simply give up and manage the problem with the only means available to them.
While adults are suffering and dealing with the impact of significant pain (coupled with all of the problems associated with that), thousands of children (29,000 in 2015/16 period), are similarly affected. Children whose dental problems will likely go on to haunt them into their adult years because of the numerous associated and compounding problems playing a significant role in their future physical and psychological health.
Poor dental health is another example of how poverty has become so expensive for poor people, it’s not just costing them an arm and a leg, it’s costing them their teeth. To add insult to injury, while they’re paying for their poverty with their teeth, we’ve made it so hard for the poor, that they even have to extract those teeth themselves.