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In recent years, Americans have become much more weight, diet and exercise conscious. The number of smokers in one of the world's leading tobacco-producing countries has noticeably declined, and a great many people take exercise - jogging, cycling or following the workouts prescribed on TV.
As a consequence, the figures for diseases of the heart and circulation have fallen significantly - 40 per cent fewer fatal strokes since 1972, for instance - a blessing to the average person's health and to the average purse.
Medical services in the USA are extremely expensive; having a baby, for example, costs between $2000 and $3000. To lessen the blow, many people are covered by insurance schemes, whose premiums are mostly paid by employers. Few of these schemes pay more than 80 per cent of a medical bill and a large number of Americans have no medical insurance at all. To these, a doctor's bill can be ruinous. Assistance is available to the poor through Medicaid and to the aged and handicapped through Medicare. Some hospitals have a limited number of charity beds, and all will take emergency cases regardless of ability to pay. Dentistry too is expensive, but many companies include dental care in the insurance package they offer employees.
One factor that has pushed up costs in recent years has been patients' increasing tendency to sue their doctors if anything goes wrong with treatment. Courts have awarded such huge damages that doctors' own professional indemnity insurance premiums have skyrocketed - and they have increased their fees as a result. Some doctors even said that they could no longer afford to remain in practice, and the federal government stepped in with moves to limit court awards.
The social security system was founded during the great economic depression of the 1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 'New Deal', and was greatly extended in the 1960s. It incorporates a federal system of medical and supplementary income benefits for the aged, the disabled and dependents. It also provides various welfare programs for the unemployed. Apart from basic cash allowances, beneficiaries may also be eligible for food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing. In 1984, according to the US Census Bureau, 33.7 million Americans were living below the poverty level - then defined as $10 609 per annum for a family of four or $5278 for a single person. However, burgeoning federal budget deficits in the 1980s threatened levels of aid.
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