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