Something terrible has happened to pregnant women in Texas: their mortality rate has doubled in recent years, and is now comparable to rates in places like Russia or Ukraine. Although researchers into this disaster are careful to say that it can’t be attributed to any one cause, the death surge does coincide with the state’s defunding of Planned Parenthood, which led to the closing of many clinics. And all of this should be seen against the general background of Texas policy, which is extremely hostile toward anything that helps low-income residents.
There’s an important civics lesson here. While many people are focused on national politics, with reason — one sociopath in the White House can ruin your whole day — many crucial decisions are taken at the state and local levels. If the people we elect to these offices are irresponsible, cruel, or both, they can do a lot of damage.
This is especially true when it comes to health care. Even before the Affordable Care Act went into effect, there was wide variation in state policies, especially toward the poor and near-poor. Medicaid has always been a joint federal-state program, in which states have considerable leeway about whom to cover. States with consistently conservative governments generally offered benefits to as few people as the law allowed, sometimes only to adults with children in truly dire poverty. States with more liberal governments extended benefits much more widely. These policy differences were one main reason for a huge divergence in the percentage of the population without insurance, with Texas consistently coming in first in that dismal ranking.
And the gaps have only grown wider since Obamacare went into effect, for two reasons. First, the Supreme Court made the federally funded expansion of Medicaid, a crucial part of the reform, optional at the state level. This should be a no-brainer: If Washington is willing to provide health insurance to many of your state’s residents — and in so doing pump dollars into your state’s economy — why wouldn’t you say yes? But 19 states, Texas among them, are still refusing free money, denying health care to millions.
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Beyond this is the question of whether states are trying to make health reform succeed. California — where Democrats are firmly in control, thanks to the GOP’s alienation of minority voters — shows how it’s supposed to work: The state established its own health exchange, carefully promoting and regulating competition, and engaged in outreach to inform the public and encourage enrollment. The result has been dramatic success in holding down costs and reducing the number of uninsured.
Needless to say, nothing like this has happened in red states. And while the number of uninsured has declined even in these states, thanks to the federal exchanges, the gap between red and blue states has widened.
But why are states like Texas so dead-set against helping the unfortunate, even if the feds are willing to pick up the tab?
You still hear claims that it’s all about economics, that small government and free markets are the key to prosperity. And it’s true that Texas has long led the nation in employment growth. But there are other reasons for that growth, especially energy and cheap housing.
And we’ve lately seen strong evidence from the states that refutes this small-government ideology. On one side, there’s the Kansas experiment — the governor’s own term for it — in which sharp tax cuts were supposed to cause dramatic job growth, but have in practice been a complete bust. On the other side there’s California’s turn to the left under Jerry Brown, which conservatives predicted would ruin the state but which has actually been accompanied by an employment boom.
So the economic case for being cruel to the unfortunate has lost whatever slight credibility it may once have had. Yet the cruelty goes on. Why?
A large part of the answer, surely, is the usual one: It’s about race. Medicaid expansion disproportionately benefits nonwhite Americans; so does spending on public health more generally. And opposition to these programs is concentrated in states where voters in local elections don’t like the idea of helping neighbors who don’t look like them.
In the specific case of Planned Parenthood, this usual answer is overlaid with other, equally nasty issues, including — or so I’d say — a substantial infusion of misogyny.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Most Americans are, I believe, far more generous than the politicians leading many of our states. The problem is that too many of us don’t vote in state and local elections, or realize how much cruelty is being carried out in our name. The point is that America would become a better place if more of us started paying attention to politics beyond the presidential race.