A couple days ago the Washington Post, my local liberal newspaper, ran a story about a program in which more than 100 Washington-area dentists and dental students held a daylong free dental clinic at Howard University for 270 children enrolled at two elementary schools in one of the District of Columbia’s poorest neighborhoods. The generous dentists, part of a nationwide effort called “Give Kids a Smile” sponsored by the American Dental Association, also offered no-cost followup work to the low-income kids, many of whom needed it badly because many had never been to a dentist before. As Post reporters Susan Levine and Debbi Wilgoren wrote:

“The children’s mouths, often rife with decay and gum disease by first grade, give them away, dentists said. ‘Their teeth are just totally bombed out,’ said Sally Cram, the dentist who led the logistics yesterday at Howard….

“Pat Grogan spent nearly two hours working on one 6-year-old girl, repairing two teeth that were so decayed they required what he called ‘mini-root canals.’ Six other teeth also needed work, but Grogan had to start on his next patient, and the little girl had had all the treatment she could take.”

It was a heart-warming effort–but then the dentists decided to politicize it with a pitch for socialized dentistry. Seems that the bad state of low-income kids’ teeth, according to the docs, is the fault of insurance companies, or maybe the federal Medicaid program that pays for some dental work, or maybe the fault of the D.C. government, which implements Medicaid by covering only 40 percent of dental bills.

How about the fault of the kids’ parents?

For one thing, as Levine and Wilgoren report, the 270 children who showed up at Howard, in what was essentially a transportation-included dental field trip arranged by their schools on a school day, represented fewer than half of the 600 kids who had been examined by volunteer dentists at their schools a couple of months ago as a prelude to the trip to the Howard clinic. As Levine and Wilgoren noted, “many parents at [the two schools] did not fill out the paperwork to allow their students to participate.”

Then, here’s what happened when the dentists set up a similar free clinic last year:
“[N]early 100 children treated during Give Kids a Smile needed additional work after the day was over. Cram sent referral forms home with them and followed up repeatedly.

“Only five parents called to ask about making an appointment with one of the dentists willing to donate additional services.

“Only one parent actually made an appointment for her child.

“She never kept it.”

This suggests that lack of dental care for America’s poor children isn’t so much an economic problem as a cultural problem. When a six-year-old girl needs root-canal work (probably because she lives on candy and soda pop and has never seen a toothbrush), when close to 60 percent of parents can’t be bothered to sign their kids up for dentistry that is absolutely free, and when 100 percent of the kids with the worst dental problems can’t be bothered to take them to a dentist’s office for further free work, blaming Medicaid or our nation’s health-insurance system seems beside the point.

But tell that to the Washington Post.