It's Getting Worse

Societally, when inequality becomes great, we lose the sense of community, lose the sense that we’re all in this together.

We’ve been seeing some pretty drastic changes in the last 35 years – since 1980. In 1980, eight percent of the nation’s total income was earned by the top one percent. The richest one percent of people got eight percent of the income. Eight times the average income would seem to be plenty. Who could want more than that? Surely that’s more than enough. But in 2011, the richest one percent brought home 20 percent of all income.

Starting in the early 20th century and continuing through the middle decades of the century, the trend in this country was toward steadily improving income equality. The gap between the top and the average of everybody else was shrinking. Then that trend reversed.

Our spirits long to be made whole, to be connected to each other on this wonderful world we share – to be connected with equals as equals. I don’t mean that we all have to have exactly the same income, but when the inequalities get this bad, it has a corrosive effect on the social contract, and on our souls as a people.
“Consider executive pay. During the 1950s and 60s, CEOs of major American companies took home about 25 to 30 times the wages of the typical worker....In 1980, the big-company CEO took home roughly 40 times. By 1990 it was 100 times. By 2007,...CEO pay packages had ballooned to about 350 times what the typical worker earned.” (Robert Reich)
Even if you think inequality by itself isn’t our business, wouldn’t you want to know what’s going on to make it get so much worse?

Various studies in various ways show that when inequality is greater, violence goes up, trust goes down. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket write in their illuminating study, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger:
“At the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume, and with little or no community life.”
All of those conditions of modern life -- anxiety, depression, unsure friendship, consumerism, lack of community -- are connected with inequality – either as cause or as result, and often partly both. Wilkinson and Picket go on to write:
“The unease we feel about the loss of social values and the way we are drawn into the pursuit of material gain is often experienced as if it were a purely private ambivalence which cuts us off from others....As voters, we have lost sight of any collective belief that society could be different. Instead of a better society, the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position – as individuals – within the existing society.” (4)
When we're all in it for only ourselves, there's increased political polarization.

Gini Index is a measure of income inequality. When it goes up, political polarization goes up.

This is not a life of spiritual wholeness.

When you compare nation to nation, there’s no correlation between wealth and life expectancy or mortality. No correlation. Rich countries have about the same life expectancies and mortality rates as relatively poor countries, until you get into the really poor end of the spectrum. As long as a nation has per-person income above about $9,000 a year, further increases do nothing to increase life expectancy. That’s the nation-to-nation comparison.

But when we do a zip code to zip code comparison, we get a different picture. The poorer zip codes have higher mortality than the richer zip codes.

If you took several of the poorest zip codes, created a new island in the Pacific, put them all there, maintained their per-person incomes as they were, made a new island nation of them, they’d have decreased mortality. They’d be fine. But because they live near the wealthier areas, they perceive that difference. They see all around them the inescapable fact that they live in a society that is set up to work for others, but not for them. They are reminded daily that they are not in a society of mutual care.

And that wears them down much more than relative material deprivation.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Income Inequality"
See also:
Part 1: Deconstructing the Mango Pop
Part 3: Inequality Harms Social Health
Part 4: Equality Is Good for Us


  1. I lived in Oak Park Illinois and probably the starkest divide was between Same Sex male couples and single moms. What at one time had been a community of wide range of incomes yet united around a family model of one man, one women, and sometimes up to a dozen kids and the shared activities that come with that family life became a starkly divided community between Gay Men and Single Women. In many respects its the current liberal agenda that's driving divisions much more profound than any income variances would do.

    1. I do believe that, for understanding our society, facts matter. (1) There's no evidence that the rise in visibility of same-sex couples is causally connected to the rise of single moms. (2) There's no evidence that hiding the same-sex couples -- so that the community appears to be uniformly opposite-sex couples -- improves community cohesiveness. (In general, same-sex couples are pretty good at community involvement -- if there's a community to be involved with.) (3) Increasing the number of single moms has never been on anyone's agenda, liberal or conservative. (4) There's actual evidence that, while community cohesiveness is compatible with "a wide range of incomes" (as your experience confirms), when that income inequality becomes as huge as it has gotten in recent years, it has a detrimental effect on social life.

  2. re: 1) I don't think they're connected either, how ever I think the numbers have both grown but for different reasons. 2) I think the number of same sex households has grown. It certainly has in my community. Not just same-sex but the contrast most noticed is same sex male couples. Often rehabbing large homes, while single moms live in the apartments. It's a striking development with whole neighborhoods gentrifying with Gay men leading that change. 3) I don't know if an increase in single moms is anyones agenda but the social services favor single moms. I've seen that with my own daughter who lost many welfare benefits in Illinois when she married. And re 4) the problem here is while your gap may be wide, it's also a pyramid with the a base a peak. The community experience of the peak is an outlier... an outlier to extent that its an irrelevant and trivial community. The real community is in the base and I believe family experience creates more community than income does here. If your proposition here is the impact of wealth on community, I'd wager it's not much because this tiny group of extremely wealthy people are irrelevant to the larger community.

  3. You might find these interesting. San Francisco vs my hometown from The Encomist back in 2002 A portrait in red and blue

    The great American political divide, as seen through the congressional districts of Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert http://www.economist.com/node/2313020

    and more recently, the striking correlation between wealth and politics and income inequality here http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/04/opinion/sunday/is-life-better-in-americas-red-states.html?_r=0