The silence is deafening.
Last week, the New York Times reported a horrifying measure of America’s shame. Life expectancy for white women without a high school degree had decreased by five years since 1990, according to a study in Health Affairs. Five years. The least-educated white men lost three years in life expectancy. And the life expectancy for American women is now dead last among developed nations, according to the Human Mortality Database.
Life expectancy in many ways is the measure of civilization. It rises as a society conquers deadly epidemics like smallpox or the plague. It rises as mothers giving birth receive adequate health care and nutrition. It rises as children are well-fed and grow up in safe neighborhoods and stable families. It rises as adults earn enough to feed their families and afford health care for them. It rises as seniors gain dignity and adequate care at the end of a life of working. And, of course, it rises as medical science advances.
I remember the shock at the precipitous decline in Russian life expectancy with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet in the U.S., this report on our own decline came and went with little notice.
Poverty is at record levels in the U.S. — now more than 48 million people. Wages are falling for working families. Health care, paid sick leave, adequate retirement pensions — all have been cut drastically.
The New York Times, citing an American Cancer Society study, reports that 43 percent of working-age adults with less than a high school diploma now go without health insurance, up from 35 percent in 1993.
In many of our urban areas, junk food abounds, but fresh vegetables and fruit are scarce and expensive. Too many poor children go to schools without playgrounds or gyms. In the ghettos and barrios of despair, drugs and violence threaten lives. But as we’ve seen, the drug epidemic extends even into rural areas scarred by meth addictions.
Life expectancy is a meter of our character, of what kind of society we are.
Yet this subject remains almost invisible on the campaign trail. President Barack Obama has focused his message, sensibly enough, on reviving a broad middle class that has been sinking over the last decades.
Republican Mitt Romney mentions poverty, but his agenda features a war on the poor rather than a war on poverty. He calls for more tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, paid for by deep and harsh cuts in programs for the vulnerable — Medicaid, Medicare, aid to poor schools, child nutrition, Head Start, home heating assistance, affordable housing and more.
His harsh view of the “47 percent” as “victims” who can’t take responsibility for their lives essentially writes them off his radar screen.
The contrast with our great leaders is stark. Franklin Roosevelt summoned Americans to build an economic bill of rights that would seek to ensure good jobs, health care and retirement security to all willing and able to work. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty succeeded in reducing childhood poverty before it was lost in the jungles of Vietnam. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington sought to rally the country to address the plight of the poor.
In the presidential debates, we’re likely to see a lot of “gotcha questions” and sound-bite answers. But surely some focus should be on the spread of poverty and the shocking decline in life expectancy.
Jesus said our character is measured by how we treat the least of these. The debates should probe how the candidates will deal with the most vulnerable among us.