Equality is Good for Us

If I’m poor, and I’m going to be poor anyway, how does it hurt me if you’re rich? That seems like a reasonable question. I might not know how to articulate the answer, but if I’m poor, and you are, too, then I can feel like we’re in this together. I have a sense of common cause with you. We may not have much, be we’ve got each other.

Societies with low inequality (the ratio of the income of the top 20 percent to the income of the bottom 20 percent is less than 5) maintain some shared assumptions about wealth and about each other. Roughly, the attitude is like this:
If there are somewhat wealthier folks among us, that’s OK. I can accept that some people are luckier, or more skillful at work that society prizes, or they’re more driven to work hard, and they end up wealthier. The relatively wealthy serve as a reminder to me of what good schooling and hard work and a little luck might make available to my children. If the town doctor has a bigger house on a hill, that’s OK – he’s smart and had a lot of training, and he’s using that to help us when we get sick, so more power to him. Maybe my kid can get a scholarship and be a doctor.
If, however, the rich-poor gap grows too large, that attitude loses purchase. In fact, in the US today, that kind of outlook is quaint -- an echo of a bygone time. Few, it seems, think like that anymore. The ones at the bottom and middle can no longer see the wealth of the ones at the top as either attainable or deserved.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here?
A relatively equal society is able to sustain a shared understanding among its members. But if, as in the U.S., the ratio of the income of the top 20 percent to the income of the bottom 20 percent is 8 or 9, there’s a disconnect. We lose the shared understanding of the legitimacy of things. The wealthy are beyond attainability, beyond any credible story of deservingness. We lose the sense that we’re in this together. The wealthy become “them.” And "they" don’t care about "us" -- so we don’t care about them. Anomie and division set in; anger and alienation become the social mood.

Sensing the resentment of most of society, the wealthy, in turn, retreat behind gated communities, which further increases the disconnect. We begin to believe the game is rigged; we don’t have a chance. When we believe that, we become more likely to behave in ways that make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rich and poor alike feel the division, the disconnect. The result is higher levels of depression, higher levels of consuming things that aren’t good for us: from drugs to alcohol to junk food to mindless TV shows to mindless consumer products. Our spirits are not whole when inequality is so massive – and our spirits long to be made whole.

Equality has benefits that show up all over. They show up, for example, on baseball teams.
“A well-controlled study of over 1,600 players in 29 teams over a nine-year period found that major league baseball teams with smaller income differences among players do significantly better than the more unequal teams.” (Wilkinson and Picket, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, 237).
When people feel like they stand on equal footing with their neighbors or teammates, there’s a cohesion that lifts spirits, heals wounds, and improves performance.

High levels of social inequality destroy the basic grounding for that community and connection. For the U.S. to make progress in rolling back the inequalities that have been growing since 1980, some combination of income caps, higher minimum wage, and a more progressive tax structure might be a good start.

Unitarian Universalists care about our world. And it’s clear now that “further improvements in the quality of life no longer depend on further economic growth. The issue is now community and how we relate to each other.” The issue is not only at the economic level but at the spirit level.
"Come spirit, come. Our heart’s control. Our spirits long to be made whole."
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This is part 4 of 4 of "Income Inequality"
See also:
Part 1: Deconstructing the Mango Pop
Part 2: It's Getting Worse
Part 3: Inequality Harms Social Health

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