Television personality and clinical psychologist Philip McGraw, a.k.a. Dr. Phil, has been widely castigated for arguing against prolonged physical distancing, based on an erroneous claim that swimming pools are more dangerous than COVID-19. Less attention has been paid to his false assertion that 250 people in this country die every year because of poverty. Epidemiologists vary in their estimation of how many people die in the United States annually for causes rooted in poverty, but the figures are invariably in the hundreds of thousands.
When the history of this pandemic is written, we will find that there were large economic disparities along with the racial disparities that have already emerged. People in poverty are less able to isolate themselves because they are so often employed in “essential,” though shamefully low-paid, work. They are more likely to be homeless, living in crowded conditions or incarcerated in facilities where disease spreads rapidly.
McGraw argued that we don’t close swimming pools because they sometimes lead to deaths. But for the sake of decency and the public health, it is past time that we close down poverty.
I run the National Diaper Bank Network, a wonderful New Haven-based nonprofit that powers community diaper banks in more than 200 cities and towns across the country. It is wonderful in that diaper banks make a life-changing difference for the families they serve. But it is also absurd that such an organization exists – that in the richest country in the world, one in three young families cannot afford an adequate supply of diapers. I hasten to add that one in three experiences diaper need in normal times. Our member diaper banks are reporting up to 300% increases in demand during the pandemic, demand that they of course are not resourced to meet. Families are doing without.
What does it mean to go without diapers? The most obvious consequence is diaper rash, which if left untreated can evolve into serious infection. Diaper need keeps families from accessing childcare, because most providers require a supply of diapers. Research also shows a strong association between diaper need and maternal depression and stress.
Perhaps it is more understandable to richer U.S. Americans than ever before that lacking material basic needs is stressful. How much time have you spent in the past two months thinking about toilet paper, hand sanitizer and the like? Imagine if every day were like the present, from cradle to early grave.
Chronic stress plays havoc with the human body, notably with the immune system. Adversity in childhood is linked to higher rates of cancer, diabetes and heart disease in adulthood. In addition to the obvious practical help a family receives by getting donated diapers, we distribute them because it makes homelife less overwhelmingly stressful. Reducing the stress of poverty can save lives.
Complaints are rife that the $1,200 stimulus check many of us are expecting from the federal government is not enough to sustain anyone. In the New Haven metro area, it falls short of the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment ($1,407). This is a good time to point out that a person earning the state minimum wage of $11 would have to work 128 hours to make that rent, the better part of a month – leaving precious little for food, medicine, gas and everything else it takes to keep a person and a household going. This is the definition of chronic stress.
The person at higher risk of COVID-19 infection because she is cashing you out at the grocery store or delivering your takeout is always at elevated risk of illness – because she’s more likely to live in a polluted area, because she cannot afford nutritious foods, and simply because life is so unremittingly hard.
Tragically, people do die in swimming pools, but these deaths are rare and accidental. Poverty kills U.S. Americans every day. It is no accident. This country has favored policies that promote growing economic inequality. We need to start discussing this as a matter of life and death – because it is.
Joanne Samuel Goldblum is CEO of the National Diaper Bank Network and author of the forthcoming book, “Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty.”