Of Facts and Faces
Policy analysts pride themselves on amassing impartial data, reserving judgment, and sticking to the facts. Good thing, given how easily policy discourse can become divorced from evidence, especially in politically polarized times such as ours. People with a narrow political vision need to have good policy analysts around to remove the blinders.
At the same time, good policy analysts run the risk of transforming themselves into automatons, exquisitely efficient number-crunching machines. The most fair-minded analysts acknowledge that while empirical objectivity is important, humanity is even more important; that numbers mean little when subtracted from the lives behind the numbers; and that facts are frequently empty without faces.
One important datum that has lost much of its meaning in the absence of flesh-and-bone context is the number of Americans without health insurance coverage. To report the sad statistic that 46 million Americans lack coverage is merely to echo what has become the monotony of U.S. health policy. The number has lost its power; it’s now just a number.
That is why our cover photo is important. It was taken July 24, 2009, at the Wise County Fairgrounds in Wise, Virginia. The people are waiting for free health care from volunteer doctors at a Remote Area Medical clinic. The three-day clinic treated more than 3,000 patients, some driving as long as five hours and sleeping in their cars to secure a place in line. The annual clinic, in its tenth year in southwest Virginia, is based on a model designed for the Third World. Similar clinics are held in Tennessee, Kentucky, Utah, and California.
Three faces in the photo stand out: the woman in the wheelchair, whose forbearance seems to be matched by a determination not to be denied care once again; the teenage boy, whose hunched shoulders and weary expression suggest a mixture of boredom and disappointment; and the alert woman in glasses, whose critical eyes aimed directly at the camera demand an answer to the question, “How could we have come to this?”
These are the people behind the numbers being debated in the U.S. Congress with regard to the core components of health care reform: coverage, access, cost, quality, and prevention. These are the people whose faces inform the facts.