Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

The Spirit Level: inequality is killing us

Posted November 7th, 2011 by

Inequality — literally — is killing us.

In my post The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling! a few months back I expressed my frustration with the inability of those in positions of power in Washington, D.C. to compromise on our national debt, the deficit, the debt ceiling, tax loopholes, tax increases and budget cuts; not to mention jobs. Political power apparently takes precedence over everything that matters. The vast majority of Americans, the 99%, if you will, suffer the consequences. Those suffering the most are the most vulnerable: the poor, children, seniors, the unemployed, and far out of proportion to their percentage of the population: people of color.

I recently read one of the most important books on this subject I’ve ever encountered, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The authors have compiled significant data that identifies one common factor linking the healthiest and most contented societies: the degree of equality among their citizens. Conversely, in unequal societies, inequality harms everyone — rich, poor and in between. Pretty much every measurable social indicator (mental illness, violence, health, life expectancy, number of people imprisoned, educational outcomes) is better in more equal societies. The United States — in spite of the claims of politicians and “America First” flag-wavers — lies near the bottom of almost every such measure.

Income inequality and life expectancy, to site two related examples, are closely connected to race:

The states with wider income differences tend to be those with larger African American populations. The same states also have worse outcomes — for instance for health — among both the black and the white population. The ethnic divide increases prejudice and so widens income differences. The result is that both communities suffer. Rather than whites enjoying greater privileges resulting from a larger and less well-paid black community, the consequence is that life expectancy is shorter among both black and white populations. (1)

As I recently wrote at the Gather at the Table blog, I believe that income inequality, and the impacts that result from it, rest at the core of the Occupy Wall Street protests. That this movement began with young people may be connected to the fact that older Americans possess 47 times as much net wealth as the typical young head-of household (Pew Research Center). Most people believe in fairness and greater equality. Almost everyone, regardless of their political, religious, or other beliefs, wants to live in a safe, healthy, and friendly community. According to Wilkinson and Pickett:

…these values have remained private intuitions which they fear others do not share. The advantage of a growing body of evidence of the harm inflicted by inequality is that it turns what were purely personal intuitions into publicly demonstrable facts. This will substantially increase the confidence of those who have always shared these values and encourage them to take action. (2)

The United States is in deep trouble. We presently have the highest poverty rates since 1993. Though economists claim we aren’t technically in a recession, tell that to people who have been unemployed for more than two years; to those who have lost their homes; who watch while Congress debates re-affirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto instead of doing something — anything– related to the creation of jobs. If we couldn’t laugh at Jon Stewart poking fun at such lunacy, we’d probably be weeping.

Big banks, Wall Street, and the uber-wealthy tout the importance of capitalism that promotes private business when it is profitable, but enthusiastically embrace socialism (i.e.: government/taxpayer bailouts) when they fail. As Nicolas Kristof recently pointed out in his brilliant column, “America’s ‘Primal Scream'”, that’s just another form of bank robbery. And as Paul Krugman points out, “extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy.”

Some of those most impacted by inequality are now taking action. Perhaps Occupy Wall Street, or whatever it evolves into, will have a long-term, positive impact. I sure hope so. The Spirit Level states:

...if the United States was to reduce its income inequality to something like the average of the four most equal of the rich countries (Japan, Norway, Sweden, and Finland), the proportion of the population feeling they could trust others might rise by 75 per cent — presumably with matching improvements in the quality of community life; rates of mental illness and obesity might similarly each be cut by almost two-thirds, teenage birth rates could be more than halved, prison populations might be reduced by 75 per cent, and people could live longer while working the equivalent of two months less per year. (3)

Now that is a “spirit level” we could all live with…


(1) The Spirit Level, p. 178.

(2) Ibid, p. 240.

(3) Ibid, p. 261.

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Copyright 2012 by Thomas Norman DeWolf | Website: James DeW. Perry