President Obama's Challenges on the Poverty, Health Front

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CommonDreams.org

President Obama's Challenges on the Poverty, Health Front

by
Cesar Chelala

An important aspect of President-elect Obama's message throughout his campaign was the need to attend to the needs of the middle class. But, as Ralph Nader correctly points out, the poor in America have much bigger needs, an issue that President-elect Obama has promised to address. Paramount among those needs is for employment and access to a good and affordable health care system.

36.5 million people (approximately 1 in 8 Americans) were living below the poverty threshold in 2006, compared to 31.1 million in 2000, according to official figures.

In 2006, the poverty rate for minors in the U.S. was the highest in the industrialized world, with 30% of African American minors living below the poverty threshold. Moreover, the standard of living for those in the bottom 10% was lower than most other developed nations.

By several measures, the U.S. has among the most inequitable health systems in the world. Despite widespread declines in infant mortality during the 20th century, the U.S. infant mortality rate – nearly seven babies die in the U.S. out of every 1,000 live births – ranks 29th worldwide, on a par with Slovakia and Poland and lagging behind Cuba. This figure should be compared with Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan where the rates are 2.0; 2.5 and 2.8 respectively.

The US infant mortality rate, which hasn't declined significantly from 2000 to 2005, is now higher than in most other developed countries. This is one of the most important indicators of the health status of a nation, since it is associated with factors such as maternal health, quality and access to medical care, general socioeconomic conditions and public health practices. The gap between the U.S. infant mortality rate and the rates of the countries with the lowest infant mortality is widening, which indicates that those countries are making better progress than the U.S.

The U.S. health care system is the most expensive in the world but comes in dead last in almost any measure of performance, according to a 2007 study by the Commonwealth Fund in New York. In addition, the U.S. also lags behind all industrialized nations in terms of health coverage. 46.6 million Americans had no health insurance coverage in 2005, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 9 million children in the U.S. are uninsured, while 23.7 million – nearly 30 percent of the nation's children – lack regular access to health care.

While employment, access to jobs and health care are critical issues at the national level, employing diplomatic measures to ensure a safer, more peaceful world are critical issues at the international level. That means, for the U.S., a return to a policy of respect for international law and treaties, issues that President Obama has a unique chance to redress.

Preventive wars, a serious violation of international law, should become a thing of the past. At the same time, the U.S. should become a signatory of a treaty for the elimination of landmines. The treaty, known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, had been signed by 2007 by 158 countries. The U.S. is not a party to that Convention.

The U.S. should also ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Governments that adhere to that convention are to report on their progress regarding the advancement of that convention and the status of child rights in their country. All U.N. member nations – except the United States and Somalia – have ratified it.

President-elect Obama stated during his campaign, "Poverty is not an issue I just discovered for the purposes of the campaign, it is the cause that led me to a life of public service almost twenty-five years ago." Talking recently to an American friend who had been living in Spain for the last two years, I asked him about how Europeans see the situation in the U.S. "Europeans," he told me, "are desperate to find reasons to love America again." By making a reality his promises during the campaign, President Obama can help them fulfill their wish.

Dr. Cesar Chelala, an international public health consultant, is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.

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