Richard Florida has written influential works about the US society and economy and on Tuesday he turned his vision to the Great American Dental Divide. Blogging a recent Gallup study on oral hygiene in the United States, he pointed out that the dramatic if unsurprising findings underline the kind of deeply divided nation we all live in today. Dental care, like so many other facets of American life, tracks with income and education levels as well as race and political affiliations. There is a sprawling American country where people go to the dentist regularly and there is an equally sprawling American country where people do not. The shorthand summary for political junkies is that if you don’t believe in climate change or in the benefit of health care reform and are leaning toward casting a ballot for Texas Governor Rick Perry sometime in your future, chances are you have lousy teeth.
“Dental visits closely track socioeconomic class,” Florida writes above a map of the U.S. colored according to the frequency of dental visits state to state. “[Visits] are much higher in states where a higher percentage of the workforce is employed in knowledge, professional, and creative work. The creative class is significantly associated with dentist visits (.31). The same is true of the share of college graduates, a measure of the knowledge base and human capital in a state. The correlation between dental visits and college grads is even higher (.65). On the flip side, visits to the dentist are negatively associated with the working class share of a state’s workforce (-.28).”
Florida makes some general assertions about political correlations. He doesn’t need to go into detail. Instead he gives a rough list of the kind of choices that every American paying attention to national culture recognize suddenly as defining: “Republican vs. Democrat, religious vs. secular, beer vs. wine, Starbucks vs. Dunkin’ Donuts, NPR vs. the NRA, NASCAR vs. World Cup Soccer.”
Place a map of the 2008 presidential election tally beside Florida’s dental divide map and the need for words almost disappears.
2008 red and blue America:
The dental divide:
Access to dental care stands as a remarkably stark divide in American life, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. More than four in ten Americans pay their dental bills themselves, compared to just 10 percent of doctor’s visits, and the past decade or so has seen a vicious “oral cost spiral,” as June Thomas points out… With incomes falling, unemployment rising, and poverty increasing, dental care has become a “luxury” that fewer and fewer Americans can afford—and this despite the high premium that we put on appearance. “We rarely think about our teeth, but without them many of us would be up a creek socially and economically,” writes Ylajali Hansen at Generation Bubble. “For many Americans, a tooth can make the difference between security and destitution. That’s right: lose a tooth in the United States and you lose your chance to live the dream. Poverty and emotional desolation follow soon upon the unfortunate loss.”
Struggling Democrats will see a glimmer of good news in Gallup’s otherwise depressing report: For now, key Rocky Mountain swing state Colorado takes care of its teeth.