Teeth: A Social Justice Issue

June 3, 2014 2 Comments

What is the number one reason for school absences in low income communities in the U.S.? It’s dental-related illness. I was blown away when I learned this. It was not what those of us working on the Boston Promise Initiative, a holistic approach to children’s academic success age 0-24 in the Dudley neighborhood, would have guessed. How can we expect children to learn if they are in pain? Why should any children suffer from an entirely preventable disease?

Dental Care

Infographic by KY Oral Health Coalition

Did you know which population group has the most untreated tooth decay and gum disease? It’s American Indians and Alaska Natives. I heard Valerie Davidson speak at the W.K. Kellogg America Healing conference last year. She told stories about young people graduating high school with full sets of dentures in rural Alaska, and of an innovative solution they are pursuing with rural Alaskan Native Dental Health Aide Therapists.

Poor oral health is just one more contributor to multigenerational poverty and racialized health disparities that does not need to exist. Imagine if access to high quality dental care were considered a human right. Imagine if access to high quality dental care were not predictable by a person’s zip code, income level, or race.

Last week I facilitated a three-day gathering of oral health advocates from Maine to West Virginia and all the states in between who have responded to the DentaQuest Foundation’s call to vastly improve access to quality oral health care across the nation, particularly in low-income communities of color, by 2020 (my IISC colleagues, Marianne Hughes, Miriam Messinger, and Maanav Thakore facilitated similar gatherings in other regions of the country). I am excited by this vision and these ambitious targets, which will be achieved by a powerful movement-building and network-building strategy, grounded in strong relationships between community health centers and dentists, pediatricians and public health advocates, oral health coalitions learning from innovations across state lines, and more. As I continue to work with these oral health advocates, I will post progress and lessons learned here. To find out more, check out dentaquestfoundation.org/oh2020!




  • Charles Jones says:

    As our founding executive director so aptly put it: “In America, health care stops at the neck. Dental and mental health are not the priority.”

    I sometimes think that our health system is set up to keep the people just healthy enough to keep feeding the beast while also keeping the people ill enough so that they cannot put up much of a fuss or attempt to break the system.

  • Jamie Cole says:

    This is such a great post! We all know that Americans still have a post depression syndrome because of the recession, I really feel sorry to those family who still can’t afford to go to the dentist. We should push this issue to the Congress and hoping that the American children will have a good quality dental care.

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