Dr. Tom: Poverty …

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I’ve got a really strange idea and here is how it happened. I read a news report about Ben Carson, our secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in which he was quoted as saying that poverty is a state of mind. I took that to mean that poor people are to blame for their own poverty. It was no surprise then, when I received my weekly email from TED that one of their talks caught my eye with the title: “Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash.” I encourage you to spend 18 minutes watching it.

Ideas sometimes have the ability to turn our worlds upside down. One of my favorite stories is about Ignaz Semmelweiss, a physician in Vienna, who just happened to notice that there was quite a difference in the incidence of childbed fever, an infection that develops after delivery, between two different obstetrical wards in a hospital. Patients cared for by midwives and even those delivering outside the hospital had a much lower infection and death rate than those attended by the doctors.

Semmelweiss caught the germ of an idea, even though this occurred in the days before anyone knew what germs really were. Doctors spent a lot of time dissecting cadavers, discovering new and important things about arteries, organs and so forth, but when summoned to evaluate a woman in labor, wiped their hands on their aprons and examined the unfortunate soul. Many of these women developed childbed fever and many of those died.

The poor pregnant women of Budapest even realized what was happening, if not why, and tried very hard not to be admitted to the doctors’ ward. Ignaz thought he would try something so he had the doctors wash their hands between the morgue and the labor room. Lo and behold, the death rate plummeted.

Leading physicians of Vienna apparently refused to believe such nonsense, because they, as the superior gentlemen they were, could not possibly be responsible for causing disease! It was, they believed, due to poverty and the general unseemliness of the obstetrical patients; in other words, they were losers.

It would take many years for Semmelweiss’ ideas to be accepted, though he didn’t help his cause by labeling those who rejected them murderers and, in general, being a little crazy. Ironically, he died in a mental hospital of an infection after being beaten, never to know the impact he would eventually have.

So, what if we now have ideas that are as wrong as the doctors in Vienna, counteracted by others such as what Semmelweiss proposed? Could such a modern, new idea be guaranteed basic income, as promoted by Rutger Bregman in his TED talk? Could it be that scarcity causes changing in our thinking? That poverty causes poor decisions rather than poor decisions causing poverty? Maybe you need to give a man a bunch of fish before he can even think about learning to fish.

I’ve never lived in a place where so many people are happy to live, where we feel so lucky just to be here. Could we share that feeling making our little town a site to research the effects of universal basic income on its poor citizens? It would take education, grants and lots of outside help. Would anyone else like to support me in trying?

Dr. Kluzak, an Idyllwild resident, is board certified in Anatomic Pathology, Obstetrics and Gynecology. He also is a freelance photographer for the Town Crier.

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