By DAVID INTROCASO, Ph.D.
Skid Row in Los Angeles
In May Philip Alston, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, and John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University Law School released his, “Report of the Special Rapporteur On Extreme Poverty and Human Rights on His Mission to the United States.” The 20-page report was based, in part, on Alston’s visits this past December to California, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. After reading the report and the response to it, one is again forced to question how legitimate is our concern for the health and well being of the poor, or those disproportionately burdened with disease.
The UN report found over 40 million Americans live in poverty, or upwards of 14% of the population. Those living in extreme poverty number 18.5 million and 5.3 million live in 3rd World absolute poverty. Among other related statistics, Alston cites the fact the US has the highest comparable infant mortality rate, 50% higher than the OECD mean, due in part to an African American mortality rate that is 2.3 times higher than that of whites. The US has the highest youth poverty rate in the OECD. In 2016, 18% of children were living in poverty comprising 33% of all people in living poverty and 21% of those were homeless. These facts are explained in part by the report noting between 1995 and 2012 there was a 750% increase in the number of children of single mothers experiencing annual $2-a-day poverty. US poverty, the report explains is due in part to the continuing growth in income and wealth inequality. The report found in 2016 the top 1% possessed 39% of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 90% lost 25% of its share of wealth and income. Since 1980 annual income for the top 1% has risen 205% and for the top .1% by 636% while annual wages for the bottom 50% have stagnated. The report reminds us the US has approximately 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its billionaires. The US in sum ranks 18th out of 21 wealthy countries in labor markets, poverty rates, safety nets, wealth inequality and economic mobility.
In a recent Health Alert I evaluated Paul Krugman’s claim that ObamaCare is going to save “tens of thousands of lives” and the repeal of ObamaCare will lead to the death of “tens of thousands” of uninsured people.
Krugman’s bottom line: Mitt Romney wants to let people die. The economics profession on this same subject: Krugman’s claims are hogwash.
But there is something that does cause people to die: socialism. More precisely, the suppression of free markets (the kinds of interventions Krugman routinely apologizes for) lowers life expectancy and does so substantially.
Economists associated with the Fraser Institute and the Cato Institute have found a way to measure “economic freedom” and they have investigated what difference it makes in 141 countries around the world. This work has been in progress for several decades now and the evidence is stark. Economies that rely on private property, free markets and free trade, and avoid high taxes, regulation and inflation, grow more rapidly than those with less economic freedom. Higher growth leads to higher incomes. Among the nations in the top fifth of the economic freedom index in 2011, average income was almost 7 times as great as for those countries in the bottom 20 percent (per capita gross domestic product of $31,501versus $4,545).
What difference does this make for health? Virtually, every study of the subject finds that wealthier is healthier. People with higher incomes live longer. The Fraser/Cato economists arrive at the same conclusion. Comparing the bottom fifth to the top fifth, more economic freedom adds about 20 years to life expectancy and lowers infant mortality to just over one-tenth of its level in the least free countries.
My aunt Marion is in the hospital dying of liver and kidney failure, the result of her 20-year struggle with heroin use. I was told of her imminent death the same day news broke about a vaccine against the drug. “Breakthrough heroin vaccine could render drug ‘useless’ in addicts,” one headline read. “Scientists create vaccine against heroin high,” proclaimed another.
Meanwhile, my aunt finds temporary relief in the ever more frequent administration of opiate pain medication — the very kind of drugs she used illegally.
The idea of an anti-addiction vaccine is not new. For nearly 40 years scientists have been working on vaccines against all kinds of addictions, including nicotine, marijuana and alcohol. There are even trials of vaccines to prevent obesity. None of the anti-addiction vaccines has yet received Food and Drug Administration approval, however, and most of the studies are still in their early stages.
The headlines trumpeting a heroin vaccine were based on a finding that the drug had proved to be effective on mice during trials in Mexico (a nation that could use some good news related to drugs). Scientists now plan to test the patented vaccine in humans. If all goes well, the vaccine could be available in five years — too late for my aunt but providing a glimmer of hope for the estimated 1 million heroin addicts in the United States. Perhaps.
Six years ago, when I was a doctoral student researching heroin addiction in northern New Mexico, I received an email from a scientist studying a possible vaccine against the drug’s use. The study was in rat models, but early results were promising and suggested the likelihood of a therapeutic effect for humans. Aware of the devastating heroin epidemic in New Mexico, which had the highest rate of heroin-related deaths in the Unites States, and of my work trying to understand it, the scientist wanted to offer some hope. He wrote that he could imagine a time when heroin addiction, in New Mexico and around the world, would be a thing of the past. I wanted to believe him, but I was less optimistic.