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We need to change the conversation about poverty and inequality. It starts with compassion and kindness.

By Karen Weese March 10,2014; Republished March 14, 2017

Nicole Larson was the kind of person whose smile always made you want to smile back. It was only after a while that it struck you: She always smiled with her mouth closed.

It had been six years since Nicole last sat in a dentist’s chair, seven since her last full exam or X-rays. Childhood dental visits had been rare: Her parents’ low-wage jobs never had insurance, and after paying for rent and heat and food, there was rarely much left. As an adult, she worked long hours as a waitress and hotel housekeeper, but those jobs lacked insurance, too, and the meager pay always ran out before the month did.

Nicole learned to white-knuckle it through toothaches, popping handfuls of ibuprofen. She brushed constantly, rinsing with every oral rinse the drugstore sold. And she perfected a dimpled, twinkle-in-the-eye smile that always got a smile in return … but didn’t require her to open her mouth.

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