Tooth decay is one of the most common early childhood diseases in the United States, and children from low-income families are the most vulnerable.
Children miss 51 million school hours every year due to dental problems, but children living in poverty miss almost 12 times more than their peers. When untreated, these problems can lead to serious health issues with eating, sleeping and speaking.
And the risk factor is greater for children living in poverty. They have five times more untreated caries than those who come from high-income families.
Low Income Means More Unmet Dental Care Needs
Children from families with an annual income of $10,000–$20,000 have ten times more unmet dental needs, and there are at least 2.6 children without dental benefits for every child with medical insurance.
Families living in poverty don’t have the financial resources to schedule regular dental appointments. Some even struggle to buy the essentials for oral hygiene: toothpaste, toothbrush or dental floss.
Excessive Weight and Tooth Decay
Preschoolers with dental issues are more likely to have higher body mass indexes (BMI).
Diets are believed to be the culprit — specifically, sugar. Overweight children are more likely to have poor eating habits and a higher sugar intake. More sugar means more tooth decay.
Unfortunately, children in impoverished communities face a greater risk of being obese. Access to a well-balanced diet is limited, causing children to become dependent on affordable and unhealthy food products.
Ethnicity and Oral Hygiene
Ethnic background may also play a role in oral hygiene for impoverished children. Of the total population in America living in poverty, black and Hispanic comprise the two largest groups at 24% and 21% respectively.
Similarly, young children of those backgrounds are also more likely to have tooth decay and unmet dental needs, with Hispanic children experiencing the worst dental health and preventative care. Many have never visited a dentist in their entire lives.
Beyond Oral Hygiene
Tooth decay and cavities aren’t the only undesirable effects poverty has on children’s dental health. Other conditions, such as a cleft lip, speech impediments and malocclusion (poor bite), are also more likely to develop.
Cleft lip or cleft palate may occur if the mother had poor health during pregnancy, circumstances that are much greater for those living in poverty. This condition may lead to poor speech development, psychological issues and a resistance or inability to develop social skills.
It’s difficult for families living in poverty to provide adequate care for children’s teeth, but it’s essential.