May 20, 2008


Several years ago, I stumbled on a thought provoking book titled Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. The author, James Gilligan, is a physician and psychiatrist who worked extensively in prisons and mental hospitals and who drew extensively on his decades of experience with violent offenders in developing his theories.

Recently, I gave the book another look and found that the public health approach he advocated holds up pretty well both in terms of personal violence committed by individuals and the much more extensive structural violence inflicted every day on poor and relatively powerless people.

The unfortunate fact that this book did not find as large an audience as it deserves is probably because he took it in a direction which many people want to avoid: the economic inequities that are violent in themselves and contribute to the level of interpersonal violence. This isn't exactly new. In the first half of the 20th century Mahatma Gandhi observed that "poverty is the worst form of violence."

Gilligan cites research on economic disparities in his book that indicates that 180 people die prematurely due to economic factors such as lack of food, clean water, health care, public health measures, etc. for every 1 person killed in armed conflict. The numbers have changed since his book came out in 1996, but the vast majority of the carnage is still on the economic side.

Let's start by just looking at (lack of) health care related deaths in the US. Families USA recently reported that in 2006 alone 22,000 Americans died prematurely because they lacked health insurance. West Virginia's share amounts to an estimated 210 unnecessary deaths per year or around four people per week.

If you look at the number of deaths attributable to economic disparities on a world scale, the results would be staggering. According to UNICEF, more than 26,000 children under age five die from preventable deaths every day. That's almost 10 million preventable deaths year, not counting people over age five.

Unfortunately for us all, as Gilligan puts it,

When violence is defined as criminal, many people see and care about it. When it is simply a byproduct of our social and economic structure, many do not see it; and it is hard to care about something one cannot see.

SPEAKING OF VIOLENCE, screening for domestic violence by medical professionals can help to end it, according to this NY Times article.

THE BUTCHER'S BILL. From the Hightower Lowdown, here's a damage assessment of 10,000--I mean nearly eight--years of Bush/Cheney.

HUNGRY COUNTRY. USA Today reports that food stamp enrollment has surpassed the previous record set in 1994. Here's one thing that's changed:

Since 2006, soaring food and fuel prices have combined with lost jobs and stagnant wages to boost the number of Americans needing food aid. More than 41% of those on food stamps came from working families in 2006, up from 30% a decade earlier, according to the latest Agriculture Department data.


RANDOM LINK. Scientists have found millions of starfish hanging out in an undersea volcano. I'm not sure what that has to do with anything but thought it was kind of cool.


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