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The pervasive poverty engulfing this nation comes as no surprise to America’s nurses. They see the country’s declining condition in their patients– an assault on the basic state of health of America’s population, with appalling effects. Nurses are sounding a national alarm about this deplorable condition and formulating a care plan to address it.
Nurses are joining other voices being raised in many quarters about an America consumed by poverty. TV host Tavis Smiley is convening a panel to examine poverty and propose solutions, “Vision for a New America: A Future Without Poverty,” www.afuturewithoutpoverty.com to be broadcast nationwide this week and next, and calling for a White House Conference on U.S. Poverty without delay.
With no let up since the financial crisis of 2008, communities across the country are in free fall. Official poverty is hovering at close to a staggering 50 million Americans. Last year, 20.5 million individuals were living in extreme poverty—at less than half of the poverty line. Older Americans are among the most vulnerable. In 2010, 8.3 million Americans over 60 faced the threat of hunger — up 78 percent from a decade earlier. In what is truly a national disgrace, our children are also hurting badly. Between 2007 and 2011, U.S. school-age children living in poor households grew by 22%. The Agriculture Department reports that nearly 1 in 4 young children lived with insufficient food last year. Overall, U.S. government estimates indicate that one in three Americans lives at or near poverty—that’s 100 million Americans.
While banks and large financial institutions were bailed out with Treasury dollars — and quickly returned to very substantial profits — recovery has eluded tens of thousand of neighborhoods, entire cities, broad sectors of our population. The pervasive poverty flourishes, despite record cash holdings – an estimated $3.4 trillion held by U.S. corporations today.
Nurses understand all too well that poverty and health are profoundly interrelated.
Poverty is a factor in premature and low birth weight babies. Our neo-natal intensive care nurses are caring now for more families living in poverty. A study published just last week by the U.S. National Council and Institute of Medicine reported the U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate of any wealthy country and also does poorly on other birth outcomes, such as low weight babies.
Nurses see increased mortality among poor children. Lack of early intervention and treatment of accidents and illness cause poor children to die unnecessarily. The U.S. has fallen to 41st in the world in infant mortality.
Children are showing signs of serious stress illnesses, otherwise seen in adult populations, such as gastro intestinal problems and high anxiety rates.
Rampant mental illness and emotional disorders among impoverished and abandoned population, including children, are also apparent. All the while access to mental health care services have been drastically cut, which in turn contributes to increases in shootings and other violence. Over the last three years the country has undergone the biggest cut in mental health programs in four decades.
Women’s health services are especially impacted by poverty. Nurses are witnessing rising maternal deaths. The rate of maternal deaths in the U.S. has doubled in just 25 years. Some pregnant women never receive critical pre-natal tests.
States in which poverty rates exceed 18% had a 77% higher rate of maternal mortality than states with lower rates of poverty. Like the infant death rate, the U.S. now trails 40 other countries in maternal mortality.
Minority women are bearing the brunt of America’s impoverishment. African American women are three-to-four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related death than white women.
Healthcare denied, or delayed, can be lethal. Increasingly numbers of people with health insurance cannot afford co-pays and deductibles and simply put off visits to medical providers. Cancer screenings, lab tests, even asthma tests for kids are missed. With cancer, delay takes away the chance of a cure.
Dental care is one of the first sacrifices of the poor. Nearly 50 million Americans, including 17 million children, have no dental care coverage. More people than ever are showing up in emergency rooms needing dental care. Postponing dental care kills people every year.
Nurses are treating heart attacks in younger and younger Americans; some receive care and yet refuse hospitalization, saying they cannot afford to miss work.
People, especially the elderly, are skipping critical medicines, or, as nurses relate, are cutting their pills in half, or taking them only every other day, at serious health risk, such as a stroke or heart attack in the case of blood pressure medication. Or they go blind because they only take eye drops for glaucoma every other day.
Nurses also describe widespread nutrition problems. From hunger and malnutrition, which lead to reduced immunity to disease and even organ failure, to higher obesity rates among our youth linked to cheaper, high fat diets.
Losing a home can have serious health consequences. A University of Georgia study of four states found that for every 100 foreclosures, there was a 7.2 percent rise in ER visits and hospitalizations for hypertension and an 8.1 percent rise in diabetes.
Nurses have diagnosed the solution – and they have a care plan, Our Nurses Campaign to Heal America.
We must swiftly eliminate all obstacles to healthcare services, once and for all. The way to do it is by improving and expanding Medicare to cover everyone, thus ending the nightmare of families choosing between taking their sick kids to the doctor or buying food or clothing for their families.
Medicare for All gives priority to patient need. It would mean a rational, more humane system based on patient need, not ability to pay.
With Medicare for all we can take the profiteering out of healthcare and all the seedy schemes we see in care denials, including non-profits using for profit management schemes that contribute to America’s demise into poverty.
Medicare for All would substantially reduce national and personal healthcare costs – by slashing administrative waste and insurance price gouging, and invoking the power of the federal government to negotiate bulk drug costs. It would end the arbitrary and callous insurance denials of needed care.
Getting quality healthcare services to all American and eliminating the profit-laden health economy will help rebuild this nation.
Other key planks of our Nurses Campaign to Heal America are meant to restore Main Street and radically reduce poverty with an emphasis on creating good jobs at living wages—the number one way to end poverty. Nurses want stepped up national efforts at achieving a safe and clean environment. Environmental pollution has a disproportionate harmful effect health effect on low-income communities, as seen, for example, in rising asthma rates tied to air pollution.
Nurses understand that cuts to the safety net will further impoverish America and induce more sickness and demise. We oppose any cut in Social Security. If it weren’t for Social Security payments, the poverty rate would rise to 54.1 percent for people 65 and older and 24.4 percent for all age groups, according to the Census Bureau.
As we transition to a healthcare system for all, eliminating profits and committing to the priority of patient need, Medicare and Medicaid must be sustained. Without them, poor Americans and the elderly will suffer serious harm.
The way to reverse America’s impoverishment, and start making our people healthy again, is to use tax revenue in a focused national efforts. We are proud to be a part of a national and international movement, with other labor, faith based, environmental, consumer, and non-governmental organizations, to get the banks and financial sector to help pay for Main Street’s recovery.
Our proposal in the U.S. is incorporated in a bill by Rep. Keith Ellison, the Inclusive Prosperity Act, which would set a tiny tax of just 50 cents on every $100 of stock trades, and smaller amounts on trades of bonds, currencies, and derivatives.
It could raise up to $350 billion every year – with revenues to pay for jobs, healthcare, reduction of poverty, fighting and eliminating AIDS, and tacking climate change.
This is a progressive tax. It would help curb the highly automated casino gambling on Wall Street that causes massive financial swings and shock waves in the economy.
It would curb some of the worst speculation that drives up food and gas prices.
And, it works. More than 40 countries have currently or recently had forms of a financial speculation tax, what we also call the Robin Hood tax.
We cannot delay the healing any longer.
RoseAnn DeMoro is executive director of National Nurses United, the largest union and association of registered nurses in the U.S., with 185,000 members. She appears on “Vision for a New America: A Future Without Poverty,” hosted by Tavis Smiley and including Cornel West, Marcia Fudge and Jonathan Kozol to be broadcast on C-Span and PBS. For program details visit www.afuturewithoutpoverty.com.