Vol.5 No.18, 06 September 2005

Income inequality is the killer

Margaret Legum

The New Orleans disaster, with its filmed evidence of suffering and corpses, unrelieved and uncollected over five days, provokes astonished questions about how the American government could have seemed so impotent. It is surely not about financial resources - the US Treasury is the richest in the world – and physical resources can always be accessed for money.

Why would a government, which claims its global political troubles stem from the world’s envy of its prosperous democracy, allow the world’s press to record evidence of the helpless and abandoned degradation of its poor people? We saw not just hunger and thirst and fear and grief, as we saw them in the faces of victims of the tsunami, droughts in Africa and war in Sudan. But dog-eat-dog aggressive struggles for scraps, rape, armed looting, unrelieved squalor, heartlessness. And police services watching from a distance.

No doubt that is not the whole story of what happened in that stadium. But we never saw that inhumanity in reports of other disasters. This tragedy seems to have revealed the ugly underside of the philosophy that underlies the American way of life, liberty and democracy. It has two aspects.

First, people should not look to others for support, but compete with others for the means to life. Self-sufficiency and competition, not cooperation are the watchwords - use your own bootstraps and make it on your own. If you can’t hack it in this land of opportunity, you are a loser and worthless. Taxing people for the common good is an attack on their independence.

Second, poverty is therefore a personal failing, not a systemic manifestation. It is easy to see how racism gets mixed into that. Black people entered the consciousness of White Americans as slaves, perceived as inherently inferior. Their inhabiting the majority in the ranks of the poor seems natural where poverty is seen as the result of personal failure, not an aspect of the way an economy works. Equally, their behaviour under stress manifests personal qualities, not societal conditions

Perhaps that accounts for the difference between the way the government responded at 9/11 - where mostly White and rich people were the victims of foreign anger – and in New Orleans where the victims were largely Black and unable to escape a natural disaster unassisted. It is impossible to imagine Bush visiting the Towers by flying over them, and allowing bodies to decay and trapped people to cry out without proper rescue for five days

Whether this was a factor in the US government’s apparent callousness – and of course there are millions of Americans who share neither of these attitudes – everyone now sees claims of popular prosperity as a sick joke. That degree of poverty in the midst of immense wealth is being seen as both shameful and systemic; and the world’s view of the great American dream will never be the same again.

The US is, of course, among the most unequal societies in the world, despite its aspiration to democracy and freedom. But new evidence shows how that degree of equality of incomes white ants a society. Inequlity is a considerable determinant of a number of indicators of social health; and shortage of money (actual cash) in relation to what other have is more significant than simply its value as buying power.

The World Congress of the Econometric Society, meeting in London in August, heard the results of new research, which surprised that conservative academic body. It shows that the degree of income equality in different areas of North America – not the absolute level of incomes – has a strong effect on some surprising indicators of social health.

These include educational achievement, the extent of violent crime, participation in democratic institutions and processes, manifestations of racism, and the degree of healthiness in diet. All of these are better where incomes are more equal. In grossly unequal areas where poor people ‘fail’ they tend to be given processes like extra support, counselling, access to subsidies holiday, school improvement, including subsidised food. What they actually need is money – cash in hand.

That research is reinforced by a recent book, The Impact of Inequality by Richard Wilkinson, who notes: We are used to feeling indignation at the human rights abuses in countries where people are imprisoned without trial….but health inequalities exact a much greater toll. He shows that every health indicator, including life expectancy, mental states, family strength and life-style choices, are related to societal income inequalities.

The countries where most health indicators are highest include Japan and Sweden. Health experts have focussed on the diet in those societies for the explanation. Perhaps it is the income equality, a feature of both countries.

Where income inequalities are least, community life is also strongest. That includes popular participation in the arts of all kinds, as well as political activity. This explains the common recognition that traditional African life encompassed a great deal of creative activity, as well as communal responsibility and compassionate mutual support - all encompassed in the word Ubuntu . It is less well acknowledged that much of that spirit has faded under the impact of western competitive values.

It seems income inequality can damage your health, and much else besides

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