Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 11.3.11

The Cost of Inequality

Income gap has deadly serious implications

The other day an old friend, reflecting on the Occupy Wall Street movement, posed two alternatives: Should the aim of this movement be to slice the existing pie more evenly, or do we want a whole new pie? Upon reflection, I concluded that this is a false choice. As I will argue, unless the existing pie is sliced more evenly, the new pie may prove beyond reach.

A very few people own most of the wealth in our society. Proponents of the status quo may claim that opponents are engaging in class warfare or that proposals to enhance access to heath care or education are socialist. They may also make claims about the importance of financial incentives, or portray taxation as a form of theft. There may be a kernel of truth in such positions, but the staggering degree of social and economic inequality in the U.S. appears to have brought things to a breaking point. 

That too much inequality can be a societal problem has become more than obvious. But if we are to do something about it, it is important that we be able to articulate a clear message about some of the costs of inequality. Here I focus on four such costs.

Inequality kills

Beginning in 1967, the Whitehall Studies have examined the health of several thousand civil servants in London, England. Workers at lower rungs of the five-tier job ladder were found to have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and several other stress-related illnesses. As contrasted with those at the top, workers at the lowest rung were four times more likely to die between the ages of 40 and 64.

A social status related health gradient has since been found in many other countries, including the U.S. Robert Sapolsky has even documented the effects of social hierarchy on stress levels among wild baboons in East Africa.

Sir Michael Marmot, who led the second Whitehall Study, attributes the effects to two main factors: People who are lower in the social hierarchy are often treated poorly by others and experience less control over their own work.

Inequality also kills by placing some people in a position of desperation, leading to violence. James Gilligan of Harvard has documented across numerous studies that a greater degree of economic inequality is associated with a higher homicide rate. He hypothesizes that this connection is responsible for the relatively high homicide rate in the U.S.

Inequality destroys community

Relationships between dominant individuals and subordinates are often tense, with the subordinate keenly aware that the dominant individual is in a position of power. In contrast, relationships among friends tend to be more egalitarian and relaxed. 

Moving from an individual to a societal level, Richard Wilkinson argues in his book The Impact of Inequality that the character of social relations in a society is strongly affected by the degree of inequality. In the United States, Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce Kennedy found that states with greater inequality have lower levels of social trust.

In the 1950s the community of Roseto, Penn., caught the attention of the scientific community because of a curious anomaly. Residents had roughly the same prevalence of risk factors for heart disease as residents of other towns. But residents of Roseto had only half the rate of heart attacks.

There was strong community solidarity in Roseto, a town settled by immigrants from a small town in Italy. This solidarity was maintained by social taboos against conspicuous consumption. Yes, some residents made more money than others, but you’d never know it from their dress or behavior, from the newness of their cars or the size of their homes. Inequality may kill, but community solidarity protects.

The anthropologist Christopher Boehm maintains that social pressures are also responsible for the egalitarianism characteristic of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Whether in Roseto or among the !Kung, equality and solidarity go together.

Inequality makes people unhappy

Why are Denmark and the Netherlands consistently ranked at the top in international studies of life satisfaction? The strong social safety net and social equality characteristic of Scandinavian countries may be part of the answer.

Maarten Berg and Ruut Veenhoven studied the relationship between happiness and economic inequality in 119 countries. The findings are at first glance perplexing. In the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, and Australia greater inequality is strongly associated with lower happiness. However, in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America the opposite relationship holds.

In collectivist societies it may be that the degree of economic inequality is a rough indicator of the degree of freedom. In a culture where “The nail that stands up is hammered down,” increased individual freedom may enhance happiness.

But in the individualist West, the degree of economic inequality may serve as an indicator of power differentials, as suggested by Wilkinson. Shigehiro Oishi and his colleagues replicated the finding of an association between greater inequality and lower happiness in the U.S. After controlling for various factors they concluded that perceived unfairness and lack of trust mediated this relationship. That is, where there is greater economic inequality, people trust each other less and are more likely to perceive themselves as being treated unfairly. As a result they are less happy.

Inequality blocks cultural transformation

In a society with a large degree of social and economic inequality, there are a lot of people scrambling just to get by. To use a term from Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel’s Human Development Theory, people in this position tend to emphasize survival-oriented values. They focus on their own physical and economic survival, distrust others, and are very unlikely to attend a meeting to protect the environment or to favor giving foreign aid to help the world’s poor.

In contrast, people who experience greater existential security can afford to be tolerant and trust others. They come to value diversity and are more likely to become active in their communities or concerned about global poverty or global warming. They shift toward what Inglehart and Welzel call self-expression values and toward post-materialism.

With such progress it may become a whole lot easier to build strong social movements in support of a variety of causes. Slice the pie more evenly, and in time a whole new pie may emerge.


David Duemler, Ph.D, lives in Eugene and is an instructor in psychology at LCC. 


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