The Painful Truth About Teeth
You can work full time but not have the money to fix your teeth – visible reminders of the divide between rich and poor
By Mary Jordan, Kevin Sullivan
May 13 2017
SALISBURY, Md. — Two hours before sunrise, Dee Matello joined the line outside the Wicomico Civic Center, where hundreds of people in hoodies, heavy coats and wool blankets braced against a bitter wind.
Inside, reclining dental chairs were arrayed in neat rows across the arena’s vast floor. Days later, the venue would host Disney on Ice. On this Friday morning, dentists arriving from five states were getting ready to fix the teeth of the first 1,000 people in line.
Matello was No. 503. The small-business owner who supports President Trump had a cracked molar, no dental insurance and a nagging soreness that had forced her to chew on the right side of her mouth for years.
“It’s always bothering me,” she said. And although her toothache wasn’t why she voted for Trump, it was a constant reminder of one reason she did: the feeling that she had been abandoned, left struggling to meet basic needs in a country full of fantastically rich people.
As the distance between rich and poor grows in the United States, few consequences are so overlooked as the humiliating divide in dental care. High-end cosmetic dentistry is soaring, and better-off Americans spend well over $1 billion each year just to make their teeth a few shades whiter.
Millions of others rely on charity clinics and hospital emergency rooms to treat painful and neglected teeth. Unable to afford expensive root canals and crowns, many simply have them pulled. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans older than 65 do not have a single real tooth left.
Over two days at the civic center, volunteer dentists would pull 795 teeth. A remarkable number of patients held steady jobs — a forklift operator, a librarian, a postal worker — but said they had no dental insurance and not enough cash to pay for a dentist.
Matello had both problems, adding to her frustration about being cut off from a world that many wealthier Americans take for granted.
“The country is way too divided between well-off people and people struggling for everything — even to see the dentist,” she said. “And the worst part is, I don’t see a bridge to cross over to be one of those rich people.”
Matello voted for Barack Obama in 2008, thinking he offered the best option for working people, but she sat out the 2012 election. Last year, she rallied behind Trump after listening to him talk about “the forgotten men and women of our country, people who work hard but don’t have a voice.”
“I’m running to be their voice,” Trump said repeatedly.
What Matello heard was a promise “to restore pride to the working poor.”
A big part of that promise was Trump’s assurance that he would build a “beautiful” health-care system to serve every American, a system that would cost less and do more. But nearly four months into Trump’s presidency, Matello sees Trump backing a Republican health care plan that appears to leave low-income people and the elderly worse off.
“I am hearing about a number of people who will lose their coverage under the new plan,” Matello said. “Is Trump the wolf in grandma’s clothes? My husband and I are are now saying to each other: ‘Did we really vote for him?’ ”
Matello said she has no option but to keep hoping Trump will devise “a plan so we can all feel the benefits of a better economy.” But since he took office, Trump has focused on so many other things — most recently, his decision to fire the FBI director — that Matello has begun to wonder about his promises to the working class:
“Was he just out to get our votes?”