False hope: effects of social class and health policy on oral health inequalities for migrant farmworker families

Soc Sci Med. 2010 Dec;71(11):2028-37. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.09.024. Epub 2010 Sep 29.


Few studies have engaged issues of social class and access related to dental health care policy from an ethnographic perspective. The state of Florida in the US has one of the poorest records in the nation for providing dental care for low-income children, falling especially short for Medicaid-enrolled children. In this paper, we discuss unmet dental health needs of children in migrant farmworker families. Although one of the most marginalized populations, most are eligible for Medicaid and are thus covered for dental services. However, serious disparities have been linked to the lack of access through the public insurance system. This study was informed by participant observation at dental clinics and a Migrant Head Start Center and interviews with dental health providers (n = 19) and migrant farmworker parents (n = 48) during 2009. Our results indicate that some typical factors associated with poor oral health outcomes, such as low dental health literacy, may not apply disproportionately to this population. Instead, we argue that structural features and ineffective policies contribute to oral health care disparities. Dental Medicaid programs are chronically underfunded, resulting in low reimbursement rates, low provider participation, and a severe distribution shortage of dentists within poor communities. We characterize the situation for families in Florida as one of "false hope" because of the promise of services with neither adequate resources nor the urgency to provide them. The resulting system of charity care, which leads dentists to provide pro bono care instead of accepting Medicaid, serves to only further persistent inequalities. We provide several recommendations, including migrant-specific efforts such as programs for sealants and new mothers; improvements to the current system by removing obstacles for dentists to treat low-income children; and innovative models to provide comprehensive care and increase the number of providers.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture*
  • Child
  • Dental Care for Children / economics
  • Dental Care for Children / organization & administration*
  • Family Health*
  • Florida
  • Health Policy
  • Health Resources / supply & distribution
  • Health Services Needs and Demand
  • Healthcare Disparities*
  • Humans
  • Medicaid / economics
  • Medicaid / organization & administration*
  • Mexico / ethnology
  • Oral Health*
  • Poverty
  • Qualitative Research
  • Social Class
  • Transients and Migrants*
  • United States