America’s Teeth Are Rotting, Probably Because Dental Care Is For Rich White People

dental care in america is expensive

Something is rotten in the United States–our teeth. According to a report released today by the CDC, 20% of Americans have untreated cavities. And if you’re a minority or you’re living in poverty, that rate can be twice as even higher. But it’s not because Americans are lazy, or even because our diets are rich in sugar (though that doesn’t help)–it’s because dental care is really, really expensive. In fact, about a third of Americans have trouble accessing oral health care.

Here are some figures from the study, via WedMD

  • 34% of non-Hispanic blacks and 31% of Mexican-Americans had untreated cavities compared to 18% of whites.
  • Adults between 20 and 64 were more than twice as likely to have untreated cavities if they were living in poverty (42% vs. 17%).
  • 25% of children and teens living in poverty had untreated cavities.

Basically, nice teeth are for wealthy white people. But it’s not because they can afford nicer toothbrushes–it’s because they’re way more likely to have health insurance that includes dental care.

Sure, brushing and flossing are important components of preventative oral health care–but there’s only so much people can do, particularly if they’re living in poverty. For those with enamel defects (because of a poor diet, or because they’re very young or very old, over-brushing, or a litany of other reasons), basic daily care isn’t enough to curb decay and prevent cavities. And once a cavity has developed, professional treatment is required to stop the pain, save the tooth, and prevent further problems. But that’s where it gets sticky–many people who are insured through an employer or otherwise, in an attempt to shore up their personal finances, opt to cut dental care first…if they even had access to it at all. Which many don’t.

Additionally, as the American Dental Association points out, only 2% of money from Medicaid goes to oral health care, and Medicare doesn’t really offer it at all. As a result, the people who need it most–low-income individuals, families living below the poverty line, and the elderly–are all left mostly on their own to pay for fillings and other forms of decay treatment. And really, if it’s the difference between paying the mortgage and getting that sore tooth filled in, most cash-strapped Americans are going to opt for the former.

Oral health care often gets pushed to the back-burner, because it seems less threatening than other ailments or diseases. Unfortunately, rotting teeth can quickly progress into a larger problem, like an infection, an abscess, or gum disease. Left untreated, gum disease can infect the mouth, lungs, and even the heart.

If you have access to dental care, use it. Seek help as soon as you feel pain in your teeth or, better yet, visit your dentist for routine check-ups ever six months. If you don’t have dental care, there are resources available. Check out The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research‘s recommendations for finding low-cost dental care in your area.

Image: Lisa S. via Shutterstock

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    • Lindsay

      In January, I bought a Groupon for a dental exam, cleaning, and x-rays. I hadn’t been to the dentist for 6 or 7 years. I was in college paying for my own health insurance (no dental) and then haven’t had a job that offers insurance at all in my adult life. Since I’ve been paying out of pocket for my insurance, I cut dental and vision and really just keep a high deductible policy in case of emergency. Well, at that cleaning I learned that I have 11 cavities. I needed a root canal and crown on one tooth. My last cavity was filled in the beginning of May and I’m out over $4,000. My advice is to floss at least 2x per day, use mouthwash, and get an electric toothbrush. I will NEVER do this to my teeth again. Truthfully, you can get dental only policies for something around $160 per year that usually cover routine cleanings and exams. It’s worth the money because my experience was hell.

    • Gary W. Vollan L.D.

      Expect More From Corporate ADA; It’s Out of Control

      Corporate ADA has power and money to change the current dental care delivery system for the better if Americans would speak out against the American Dental Associations deceiving and pacifying public relations campaign for a better public image.

      The ADA works against its own vision and mission statement by suppressing competition that has been trained and educated in providing oral health care services to those who are unable to pay the high prices charged by dentist, leaving Americans without needed dental care.

      The ADA’s waste of time and money, spent on lobbying and ADA’s strong arm tactics against competitors such as denturists, dental health aide therapists, and independent practices for dental hygienists needs to change for better production in meeting the oral health needs of Americans.

      This wasted money could be used in further educating the professions ADA fights against in alleviating ADA’s bogus public safety concerns. Corporate ADA could take portions of the millions of dollars it uses for lobbying and fighting against its competitors and instead, send each state grants to compensate dentists who except Medicaid recipients. This would greatly improve our Nations oral healthcare concerns and unmet dental needs.

      Gary W. Vollan L.D.

    • Nina dds

      As a dentist, who now treats only lowest-income population but used to treat all demographics, I can tell you that the problem is huge and affects EVERYONE.
      A big part of the problem is that people don’t really understand that shelling out a little money twice a year for check-ups and cleanings is far cheaper than waiting until a tooth hurts (many dentists will do very cheap exam/xrays, $25-100, depending on the area). Prevention is key.
      The other problem is that a lot of people don’t believe that their teeth are important, or actually a part of their body. Its really sad.

    • Dr. Del

      I am an el paso dentist and I work with all demographics. I agree that prevention is absolutely the key, and once major dental care is needed it can get quite costly for most people. I’m not opposing more affordable dental care in any way however I have noticed that lower income families tend to have worse diets and dental habits, which only magnifies the issue. Anything we can do to help educate will make an extremely big difference.

    • doug

      While I understand dental care is expensive for anyone, I don’t want to hear anything from someone with X box and games, Nike shoes, rims on cars, or stereos, or flat screen T.V.,s. Where are your priorities Mr. Rascist?????

    • sam

      Well Said Lindsay,
      Brushing, flossing, and routine (low cost) check ups will prevent thousands and thousands of dollars in treatment. I wish more people would listen to the dentist instead of shrugging when asked if they brush and floss twice daily. As prevention and education improve at home so will the disparities seen in this “study”.

    • Steve

      The person who wrote this article must be retarded. There are many reasons the poor dont use the services of the dentist. But those on medicaid have no excuse they have limited dental care free to them and many of them do not use it, dont show up for the appointments they have made and fail to take their children.
      No one ever researches what these people do spend their money on, they can have cell phones, cable TV, I-pads ,a motorcylcle, a boat etc, they have chosen not to have dental work because they have chosen to spend their money elsewhere.
      Besides their personal neglect in their own dailey hygiene routines, the fact that they glu themselves on sugary food, mountain dew, drugs etc, become obese and have a total disregard for their overall general health, and you blame the dentist.

    • Randy

      Im a full service dental lab owner and would like to comment about people problems with dental health . I work for Doc’s all over the U.S . and have give work below cost and some free for patients who are unable to afford care , because the Dentist called and ask me to help a patient . I believe that the profession is dedicated to help and I believe that the people yall are dicussing can have care very simple by going in to a Dentist office and talking to the Doctor about their situtiation and asking if its possible to start a payment plan ie: in advance ; of work being done in the future ,patients are aware that these sitution are going to arise ,and if with a little planning and dropping off say 20.00 a week to start a fund for these needs they will build a relation with a Dental practice that will help their family for ever . Dentist have bills just like the patient have ,they can’t do their work for free . I would like the readers to be aware that our lab works for all clients , black, hispanic and white that are friends or becoming friends and they are all sucessful not anything like the title suggest .Also ,Dentist got the government to put flouride in the drinking water, and that has reduced the amount of cavities ,so lets all have water instead of some sugar drink ! Check us out at :

    • alginate

      Amazing post..Thanks for sharing this article here..It’s really great post..