The PBS NewsHour Weekend show on Sunday pitched for more Euro-socialist-style government programs -- to save schoolchildren suffering a school lunch “crisis,” and to boost U.S. average life expectancy.
To make the argument that the United States should be more like other “industrialized” countries in order to boost U.S. life expectancy, host John Yang teed up a liberal doctor, even though the reasons for America’s poor performance in world rankings aren’t lack of quality health care for the old but social problems that can’t be treated in a doctor’s office.
Yang: Life expectancy for the average American has dropped for the second year in a row, it's now 76 years….Dr. Steven Woolf is Director Emeritus of the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health. I know we're focusing on just the last two years, but this is a longer trend, is it not?
Woolf explained the decline is being driven by the young and middle-aged, “the problems of drug overdoses, suicides, alcohol-related causes.” And of course, guns:
.…the firearm issue is a prominent reason for this increase in mortality in young people. It accounts for about half of the suicides committed by young people and the majority of homicides. So firearms play a large role in contributing to this, but not the only one. Clearly, there's a mental health crisis that's fueling it. And lately, drug overdose death rates have begun increasing.
Yang couldn’t get enough of euro-socialism, economic malaise be darned, prodding Woolf on why “other industrialized nations” didn’t have the same problems, wondering if America’s woes were due to the lack of “universal health care.”
The show’s next segment also faulted America, this time for actually clawing back a pandemic emergency program that provided tax-funded school lunches for all public school students. Reverting the federal school lunch program back to 2019 was an actual “crisis” to tax-funded PBS.
Reporter Ali Rogin: Joining me now is Crystal FitzSimons from the Food Research and Action Center, she leads the Center's work on nutrition programs that serve school-aged children….
FRAC representative Fitzsimons condescended:
Well we know that kids do better when they're well-nourished. We know that kids need a nutritious breakfast to start the school day ready to learn. They need a nutritious lunch to continue to learn throughout the school day…
(FRAC is a left-wing food activist group pushing for universal school lunch, and has been falsely claiming “hunger in America” for decades. Hardly an objective source for this report.)
Rogin painted a return to 2019-era school lunch funding levels as a “crisis”:
So there are a few states that have gone ahead and passed their own free breakfast and lunch programs, other states are pursuing those routes. How are other states approaching this crisis?
Rogin threw in a single, almost apologetic challenge at the very end while inviting her guest to rebut the criticism.
Now, there have been some critics of broad school, breakfast and lunch for all programs, saying that they are wasteful, that they have in the past shown that they can't account for millions of dollars in improper payments. How do you respond to that criticism?
Fitzsimons dodged the question.
Transcripts are available below, click “Expand” to read:
PBS News Weekend
7:06 p.m. (ET)
John Yang: Life expectancy for the average American has dropped for the second year in a row, it's now 76 years, while life expectancy fell around the world in 2020, because of COVID other countries have rebounded in 2021. But the United States continued its decline hitting the lowest point in nearly two decades. Dr. Steven Woolf is Director Emeritus of the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health. I know we're focusing on the just the last two years, but this is a longer trend, is it not?
Dr. Steven Woolf, Virginia Commonwealth University Center School of Medicine: Absolutely. Our problems really began back in the 1990s. Life expectancy has been increasing in all industrialized countries. But starting then the pace of increase in the United States began to fall off. And then after 2010, it just stopped increasing altogether and plateaued.
John Yang: What are the factors in that? Why is that happening?
Dr. Steven Woolf: Well, it's being driven by an increase in death rates in young and middle-aged adults 25 to 64. And most of those relate to the problems of drug overdoses, suicides, alcohol related causes. These are sometimes called deaths of despair, but also cardiometabolic diseases like diabetes and other conditions caused by obesity.
John Yang: And I know that you've taken a closer look at that younger age range. What were you finding
Dr. Steven Woolf: Well, we found that death rates increased in that young adult and middle age group. But there was something disturbing in the new data for 2021. Yes, it showed this massive decrease in life expectancy, but it also showed an increase in death rates in children and teenagers. And an increase of that size has not been seen in my entire career.
John Yang: And what are the factors that play into that?
Dr. Steven Woolf: Well, keep in mind that death rates have been falling dramatically in young people due to progress in pediatric medicine and curing cancer and deaths from birth defects. We've also markedly reduced the risk of deaths from car accidents. But this upward trend is the result of four causes, suicides, homicides, drug overdoses and car accidents, mainly in young people 10 to 19 years old.
John Yang: These are not organic problems. They seem preventable?
Dr. Steven Woolf: Yeah, this is not a cancer cell. This is not a microorganism. These are manmade pathogens. And that's what's tragic about this. These deaths are preventable.
John Yang: And you talked about drug overdoses and gun violence, obviously, is that — how big a factor are they?
Dr. Steven Woolf: Well, the firearm issue is a prominent reason for this increase in mortality and young people. It accounts for about half of the suicides committed by young people and the majority of homicides. So firearms play a large role in contributing to this, but not the only one. Clearly, there's a mental health crisis that's fueling it. And lately, drug overdose, death rates have begun increasing.
John Yang: So it sounds like this is not a question about health care in the traditional sense that thinking about going to the doctor or going to a hospital.
Dr. Steven Woolf: Well, health is about more than health care. And as a doctor, I often have to emphasize that, but portions of this problem are related to health care, in terms of people's ability to access services that they need, particularly in the area of mental health. This mental health crisis began years ago, suicide rates started increasing in young people in 2007. But access to mental health services and substance abuse counseling is just not — what it needs to be in this country.
John Yang: Why is this particularly to the United States? Why to other industrialized nations are not seeing the same thing, is it societal?
Dr. Steven Woolf: Well, we can look at some obvious explanations like the fact that we don't have universal health care systems, but frankly, it has a lot to do with how we approach public policy in this country, around social and economic issues. Those are the major drivers of health. And other countries have been much more successful in pursuing policies that invest in children education and provide economic support for families that are going through tough times. We don't have that kind of safety net of the United States, and we've paid the price for it. Other countries have outperformed the United States as much as 50 years, 50-year period in which other countries have achieved higher life expectancy than the U.S.
John Yang: You mentioned universal health care, are there other things that other industrialized nations are doing that the United States is not doing?
Dr. Steven Woolf: Yes, for many years, other countries have outperformed the United States in terms of their investments in education, so their children are getting better education. They've also established programs for many years that provide economic support for families that are dealing with unemployment or other problems. Investments in parental leave, minimum wage, policies of the sort that often run into political hurdles in the United States are widely adopted in other countries and their populations are living longer.
John Yang: What other public policy and public health implications are there from this?
Dr. Steven Woolf: Well, I think we're really destined to see life expectancy continuing to fall or at least not increase unless we take this seriously and make some changes in public policy. The concerning problem I mentioned with children and teenagers means that the death rate is increasing for children one to 19. And put simply that means our young people are less likely to reach age 20 in adulthood. So we need to do something to try to save our children if they're going to have a future. That's as healthy as ours.
John Yang: Last September marked the end of a federal pandemic era program that provided free meals for all public-school students nationwide. And now with inflation making trips to the grocery store more expensive, families are feeling the pinch, but it's not just parents shouldering the burden. A recent survey by a group that advocates for universal free school lunch found that 847 school districts have racked up more than $19 million in debt from unpaid lunch fees. The result can be tough questions for parents and schools. Ali Rogin has more.
Ali Rogin: Joining me now is Crystal FitzSimons from the Food Research and Action Center, she leads the Center's work on nutrition programs that serve school aged children. Crystal, thank you so much for joining us. When this program ended, many school districts switched back to having kids apply to receive reduced or free school lunches. What were some of the challenges in implementing those changes?
Crystal Fitzsimons, Food Research & Action Center: Yeah, so after a couple of years of schools being able to offer free meals to all students, schools had to go back to collecting school meal applications and individually qualifying kids for free or reduced-price school meals. So what we saw was that a lot of kids were falling through the cracks. A lot of families didn't know they had to fill out school meal applications. And the other challenge really is that the threshold to receive free school meals is too low. So for like a family of three, you would have to earn just under $30,000 a year in order to qualify for free school meals. So we actually heard from a lot of school districts that families were applying for free school meals, and they weren't meeting the cutoff.
Ali Rogin: And what about those people who perhaps their applications just never got to the school or they had trouble submitting the applications, things like that, or in some cases they just don't know to apply.
Crystal Fitzsimons: Now, that's exactly right. The school mail application process can be challenging for families and for schools. And so some kids are under certified, which means they're eligible for free meals. But there was maybe a mistake with their application or they didn't submit an application. Some kids struggle to pay the reduced-price copay because they don't quite qualify for free school meals and other families who don't qualify for free or reduced-price school meals can sometimes struggle to even pay the cost of the meal.
Ali Rogin: All right. And then what do we know about how students are affected when they get denied a meal because they can't pay for it?
Crystal Fitzsimons: Well, so there's a couple things the school breakfast and school lunch program really do make sure that kids have access to the nutrition that they need to grow and thrive and do well in school. And so when they show up in the school cafeteria, and they don't access that meal, it can be really difficult because the kids don't get access to the food that they need. And then for schools, if a child shows up in the school cafeteria, and they don't have money in their school lunch account or cash in hand, then the school is left with a tough decision to. They need to figure out whether or not they can cover the cost of that meal. And what ends up happening is if a child goes through the school lunch line and the school isn't going to let them charge the meal then they ended up having to take the lunch away from the child which is pretty traumatic. And nobody wants that to happen. Schools don't want that to happen. Parents don't want that to happen and kids definitely do not understand when that happens to them.
Ali Rogin: All right. And how does it affect their academic performance, what do we know about that?
Crystal Fitzsimons: Well, we know that kids do better when they're well nourished. We know that kids need a nutritious breakfast to start the school day ready to learn. They need a nutritious lunch to continue to learn throughout the school day. And so kids are missing out on lunch during the school day, they're going to return to class in the afternoon, unable to focus and unable to concentrate.
Ali Rogin: And then in some communities advocates have been finding ways to pay for these meals without state or federal help. What are those efforts look like?
Crystal Fitzsimons: Well, so there's a couple things that are going on. Some school districts will actually participate and option these are high poverty districts and still offer free meals to all students through what they call the Community Eligibility Provision. Other districts will maybe raise money to help pay the cost of the unpaid School Meal debt, which is actually not the best idea because it just makes it difficult for it's just not a great policy, like it's much better to be able to just offer free meals to all the students.
Ali Rogin: So there are a few states that have gone ahead and passed their own free breakfast and lunch programs, other states are pursuing those routes. How are other states approaching this crisis?
Crystal Fitzsimons: Well, that's absolutely right. Five states actually have created permanent healthy school meals for all programs where kids across their state are able to access free meals no matter what. And that's been incredible. They didn't want to go back to the way the programs operated before the pandemic. And then we have four more states that have actually passed extended free school meals for all for at least one more year, and advocates in those states are working very hard to try and get those extended. And then other states, we have about 20 states that are working on campaigns to try and get healthy school meals for all. So nobody really wants to go back to wait the school nutrition programs operated before the pandemic.
Ali Rogin: And in the past, on the federal level, there have been efforts to pass some sort of more broad free lunch and breakfast programs. But what's the prospect for anything happening on the federal level these days?
Crystal Fitzsimons: Well, hope springs eternal. So we continue to ask Congress to do what we need them to do, which is to offer free meals to all students and to fund it. We — the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, those are national programs. And we want to make sure that kids in Mississippi have the same access to school meals as kids in California and kids in Maine, and kids in Texas. So we're really calling on Congress to do the right thing and create a healthy school meals for all program.
Ali Rogin: And the USDA is actually proposing a program that would provide free meals to schools that have predominantly low-income students, what do those efforts look like?
Crystal Fitzsimons: Yeah, so we do have a program like that. And what USDA is talking about doing is extending it so that more schools would qualify for it. And we are also hoping that Congress would actually invest in that program more to make it more financially viable for the schools to do it. So USDA has been a great partner and trying to ensure that kids have access to nutritious school breakfast and lunches.
Ali Rogin: Now, there have been some critics of broad school, breakfast and lunch for all programs, saying that they are wasteful that they have in the past shown that they can't account for millions of dollars in improper payments. How do you respond to that criticism?
Crystal Fitzsimons: Well, so first, I would say that kids are in school for about seven hours a day, and they all need access to school breakfast and school lunch. And second, I would say the process that schools have to go through to certify kids for free and reduced-price school meals is a very challenging process. And so kids get missed, kids get under certified or over certified. And a lot of times when people are talking about what you're talking about, it's actually you're talking about a child receiving a lunch. And so I don't really think about that as fraud. I think that all the kids should be able to access a nutritious lunch.