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What does archaeology have to do with health care reform?

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | April 16, 2010

That’s what I was left wondering when my periodic browsing of press coverage of my discipline brought me to an online story posted by San Jose Mercury News business editor Drew Voros, under the headline “Health care reform can slow down aging process”.

Written as a dialogue between a father and son, the column presents the picture of an adult child unwilling to settle down and get a full-time job, with benefits. The punchline comes somewhere in the middle:

SON: Health insurance? That’s not [a] problem with President Obama’s health care reform. Now dependents aged 26 and under can stay on their parents’ health insurance. And if anything does ever happen to me like disease or dismemberment, health insurance companies cannot deny coverage for pre-existing conditions.

The provision for extending coverage to adult children, according to news reports, has actually “become one of Obama’s biggest applause lines when he campaigns to promote the new law around the country“. Attempting to counter this appealing prospect, the argument that this provision will encourage adult children to defer entering the job market has been advanced by conservative bloggers.

A 2007 article based on research sponsored by the Pew Research Center argued that “adults who are just setting out on their own are tough to cover, because they tend to be in low-paying jobs that they don’t hold on to very long, making it difficult for them to buy employer-based health insurance.” Pew Center research, like subsequent studies, shows that the cost of insuring these young adults on their parents’ policies is relatively low, while providing a kind of security that is critical for most people’s sense of well-being. No wonder this is a popular policy.

Trying to shift the storyline from the popular one of extending support to young adults newly employed or seeking work, to scorn for adult children unwilling to take on adult responsibilities, would seem to be an uphill battle. And that is where archaeology comes into Voros’ imagined dialogue between Father and Son.

What has distracted Son from joining the world of full-time jobs with real benefits?

TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD SON: Hi Dad, I’ve got some great news. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has come up at school I want to talk to you about.

SON: Hold on, just hear me out. I have been asked to go on an archaeological dig in Peru for nine months through the university. I applied for a grant that pays for everything including classes when I get back.

SON: I can get a masters in archaeology by doing two semesters of classes, a thesis along with the field work.

Reading this exchange– with its implication that spending close to two years (“more like eighteen months”, Son says) engaged in archaeology is extended childhood– while at the 75th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology created great cognitive dissonance. Thousands of archaeologists are here, and all of us work in what the character Father calls “the real world”, not “the buried world” he accuses Son of wanting to stay in. Even the pop culture icon of archaeology, Indiana Jones, is a hard-working university professor when not traveling the globe in search of treasures for his university’s museum.

But I have to conclude that somehow, archaeology serves to dramatize the least practical career choice a Father could imagine for his Son. And I can only wish, with Son, that his Father could be “a little more enthused” about the extension of health care coverage on parental policies to adult children.

And if greater security in health care coverage lets some young adults imagine taking intellectual risks, so much the better. As Son says to his Father:

SON: And you are missing my point. I will never have a chance to do this. The job market is awful, you say that all the time. I could be looking for a job for the next nine months and not find one. Then what would I have gained rather than going to Peru? There’s more risk not going than going.

Comments to “What does archaeology have to do with health care reform?

  1. Hey Rosemary,
    If been reading this blog for a while, and i will be reading it a long time from know. when you blog it’s like telling a story:)
    Thanks for all

  2. Everyone seems to have this idea that there’s no viable alternative to employer-sponsored health insurance. “It’s so expensive to pay for your own!” Guess what: you’re paying for it whether you think you are or not. Employers factor in your health benefits as part of the cost of keeping you in a job. If we could liberate the country from this fallacy that employers have to pay for health insurance (making it harder for individuals to use their dollar votes to steer the industry), then the money employers currently spend on non-monetary employee compensation (health insurance) would go back to being monetary. You’d get the money and then be allowed to decide where to spend it.

    • You are assuming several things here that I think we can challenge.

      First, the national interest is in covering the health needs of everyone. Not just those currently employed. The health emergencies of people who are not covered– even if their lack of coverage is temporary as they are between jobs– often bring them to emergency rooms, where the costs of their care drive up the costs of care paid for by the insurance of others.

      Second, the national interest is also in ensuring continuity of health care, so that early intervention can ward off complications of diseases that make health costs higher, and so that continuous care can prevent stabilized illnesses from becoming worse, again potentially driving health care higher.

      Finally, the cost of employer paid health care is indeed part of the total compensation of anyone whose employer provides such care. And by being part of group plans, the amount paid on our behalf is lower than the very same plan from the very same provider would be for us individually. We would need, not just the dollars paid on our behalf as premiums, but many more dollars besides, to ensure the same level of coverage– even if we were all employed continuously without breaks in coverage.

      Fundamentally, the point of national universal health care is not to maximize the benefits to those who can pay individually; it is to ensure that as a society, we maintain the health of all our members, and thus ensure the same quality of life regardless of economic means.

  3. For me, the idea of a social contract is what we seem to be missing in these debates. Even when we have a low unemployment rate, there are times when people are unemployed. We currently absorb the costs of health care for these uninsured invisibly, as they either use emergency room care or don’t get treated until things are more serious, or both.

    What surprised me in this article was the pairing of this lack of a sense of community responsibility with what seems like a somewhat ambiguous suggestion that there is something wrong with wanting to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime educational opportunity. I can quibble with some aspects of the scenario provided by Drew Voros (most students accompanying me into the field get room and board and travel to the sight, not a stipend; and his imagination of what grad students do for a living is far from the reality). But that is not the point.

    In my lifetime, archaeology has changed from a career only a small, privileged group could pursue to a much more diverse field with people whose parents were college professors rubbing shoulders with others (like me) whose parents were factory workers and home-makers. This educational opportunity is blighted by the fear of not being able to afford to take a risk with your future and go to university.

    In the scenario Voros proposes, coverage on the parent’s insurance would simply be a nine-month bridge to a lifetime opportunity. Graduate programs provide health insurance for enrolled students, whose development as researchers and teachers is real work.

    And if the dialogue was intended to represent the specter raised by conservatives of an eternal adolescent, well, it falls far short. The arguments raised by the Son are quite coherent. He offers to pay for the added cost to be included on his parent’s insurance. The Son is not asking to be kept on insurance to hang around and do nothing: he has a plan that will engage him in some of the most challenging work in his life.

    But I can imagine people being persuaded that adult children should not have this kind of bridging opportunity, and I am not happy that my discipline was pressed into service as the illustration of a useless career.

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