June 25, 2017

The Worthy and the Unworthy

One of the most illuminating and insightful articles I ever read was written by historian of medicine David Rosner. Entitled “Health Care for the ‘Truly Needy’: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Concept.” I read it when it was first published and I’ve remembered it since—and that was 35 years ago. The nineteenth century concept of the “worthy poor” or “deserving poor,” and its Reaganesque reformulation is sadly reflected in the Republican health care bill revealed today.

Rosner points out that at a time of relative ethnic homogeneity in pre-industrial, pre-Civil War America, the poor were often seen, in the light of Christian teaching, as individuals who would be rewarded with salvation. As an added bonus, the presence of poor people gave the wealthy an opportunity for charity, which would likewise be rewarded. But then, in the second half of the nineteenth century, millions of destitute immigrants arrived on American shores. At the same time, Americans suffered from tremendous economic dislocation related to urbanization. As a result, “a general consensus developed among the native-born equating poverty...sinfulness, and individual failure with foreign birth. Conversely, wealth, American nativity, and material success were equated with righteousness and moral behavior.”

The Surgeon General of the US in 1891, Dr. John Shaw Billings, remembered for introducing the collection and maintenance of “mortality and vital statistics” records, also accepted the notion of a meaningful distinction between the worthy and unworthy poor saying “there is a distinct class of people who are…almost necessarily idle, ignorant, intemperate, and more or less vicious, who are failures…and who for the most part belong to certain races,” by which he meant Catholics, Jews, Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans. He accepted the need to provide medical care for this group—but only to prevent the spread of infectious diseases to the remainder of the population.

And then we have Dr. Stephen Smith, another public health giant, who cautioned that medical charity can be “the inlet through which the habit of pauperism first creeps into the poor man’s house.” That is, helping people who are poor fosters dependency and is to be avoided. Remember Romney’s 47 percent? The people who are “dependent on the government” and who should simply “take personal responsibility” for their lives?

After discussing the way that concepts of the worthy and unworthy poor evolved in tandem with the growth of the hospital in the early part of the twentieth century, Rosner concludes by arguing that “although the language used today is significantly different from the angry, moralistic, and class biased rhetoric of the nineteenth-century debates, there is a similarity of meaning and analysis in arguments over definitions of the ‘truly needy, over the proper eligibility criteria for a variety of health programs like Medicaid and Medicare, and for the scope of other social service programs such as food stamps and welfare.” He was writing in 1982, but he could equally well be writing today, as we learn who it is that the Republican senators, or at least those who crafted the latest version of the health care bill, deem worthy. Full-time employees of well-heeled companies are worthy and older people, provided they don't live in nursing homes, are worthy. It's unclear if fetuses are worthy: health plans may be excluded from the insurance exchanges if they cover abortion, but health plans may also be allowed (through a waiver) although they fail to cover maternity care. Everyone else, the senators assume, could purchase health insurance—or better yet, not get sick—if only they had the necessary moral fortitude.

This isn’t how any other democratic nations in the world view health, medical care, or their citizens. They assume that everyone is "worthy" of basic medical care. They regard it as the responsibility of government to promote the health of their citizens, just as it government's responsibility to keep them safe and educated. Tell your senator that  enshrining archaic concepts of worthiness into law by severely restricting access to medical treatment is not the way to keep America great.

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