Brighter smiles mean brighter job prospects

David Delgado//The Daily Cougar

David Delgado/The Daily Cougar

A smile can be important at a job interview. Career advice books offer a multitude of tips on professional dress, makeup and interview skills. However, they ignore the impact of healthy teeth.

Attractiveness is a valuable social commodity. Countless studies have found that attractive people are perceived to be more intelligent and talented than their less attractive peers. Attractive people who benefit from these perceptions tend to be more successful in social situations, such as job interviews.

A 2001 study published in the Journal of Social Psychology found that physical appearance even has an impact on the sentencing of defendants on trial.

Healthy and even teeth play a huge role in social conventions of attractiveness. Celebrities shell out tens of thousands of dollars for expensive veneers in order to achieve that toothy movie star smile. Billboards and magazines are filled with toothpaste advertisements, and anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of American children will wear braces before the age of 18.

Conversely, a whole slew of negative stereotypes are attached to bad teeth. Rotten, crooked teeth are associated with evil. “The Simpsons” villain Mr. Burns has a prominent overbite, and Gargamel from “The Smurfs” possesses a lone, yellowed snaggletooth. Poor characters usually have missing teeth, and hillbilly characters have buck teeth.

At Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, researchers conducted a study on the social benefits of attractive teeth. A random sample of teenagers was photographed. Researchers digitally altered photos, inserting either straight or crooked teeth. Separate groups of reviewers were shown photos of the same face, so that one group saw a photo with crooked teeth and another group saw a photo of the same face with straight teeth.

The reviewers were asked to score the faces in categories such as intelligence and leadership. Faces with straight teeth were rated 10 percent higher than those with crooked teeth in almost every category.

Bad teeth can be a major hit to social confidence, which is key to the job interview process.

“Having unhealthy teeth absolutely affects social and employment opportunity,” said Dr. Brandy Bannister, a dentist at the UH on-site dental clinic. “If a person is not confident in their smile, they won’t be confident in an interview situation.”

Low-income and unemployed people often cannot afford dental care and do not have access to insurance, as most dental insurance in the United States is provided through employer packages or private insurers. Employers are far less likely to hire candidates with bad teeth, especially to jobs in social services.

Unfortunately, major dental care can be cost-prohibitive.

“Quality ranges with care,” Bannister said. “A crown is about a thousand dollars, and implants can run from five to six thousand dollars.”

Lack of dental care is a systematic barrier to economic upward mobility. The 2012 U.S. Senate Report on dental care in America estimates that 130 million, or approximately 42 percent of Americans, lack dental insurance.

More than 30 percent of Harris County residents lack medical insurance. Public transportation in Houston is limited, so the few low-cost dental clinics in the area can be inaccessible to people without cars.

Medicaid coverage for dental work is limited. There is no federal minimum requirement for adult dental coverage. Under the program, states are free to determine medical necessity for dental coverage. Most states opt for limited adult dental coverage, and dental care is often one of the first coverage areas slashed when states must make Medicaid reductions.

Even with insurance, dental care is expensive. According to SmartMoney, dental insurance payouts are usually capped at $1,000 to $2,000 per year.

There are some low-cost dental care options in Houston. UH offers discounted dental services to students, faculty and staff. There are also private, nonprofit centers for low-cost dental care in the city of Houston, such as the San Jose Clinic and the Community Medical Center. These clinics have income requirements similar to that of Medicaid. The San Jose Clinic, which relies on volunteer work and philanthropic support, offers specialized health care to uninsured patients.

Affordable dental care can often be found at major dental schools, like the University of Texas School of Dentistry in the Medical Center.

Dental treatment can be life-changing. A University of San Francisco study offered free dental treatment to 400 welfare recipients in need of major dental work. Dental treatment dramatically increased employment prospects. Participants who completed treatment were twice as likely to gain employment and get off welfare as opposed to those who did not complete treatment.

Accessible treatment benefits not only individuals, but the economy as a whole. According to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 164 million work hours are lost per year to preventable oral diseases.

Bannister recommended cleanings and checkups twice yearly.

“Surface fillings are usually $180 to $190, which is much cheaper than thousands of dollars of major work,” Bannister said.

Increased dental coverage and accessible low-cost dental clinics in the city of Houston would support workplace productivity and economic mobility. As long as dental treatment is out of reach, people with bad teeth face a major barrier to employment.

Opinion columnist Megan Kallus is an English literature junior and may be reached at [email protected]

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