Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.
Shirley Sherrod had it about right when she said,
“Y’all, it’s about poor versus those who have. It’s really about those who have versus those who don’t. And they could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic...”
That wasn’t exactly the whole truth, for she and her husband. Charles, were ardent, longtime civil rights activists who understood that years of racism, played a large role in perpetuating the ignorance and poverty in the south among blacks as well as whites.
(Racism is here defined as the belief among many whites, supported by the law, that Negroes were inferior. Only in America did the Supreme Court, in Dred Scott, hold that black slaves were chattel, less than human.)
Overcoming that sad heritage, Ms. Sherrod, who has spent a lifetime helping in the struggles of the poor of all shades put her finger on a fundamental human problem in much of the world, especially the United States - the unequal distribution of wealth among too many of us.
That is the subject of a new book that has become the rage among social scientists and activists in Europe, especially Britain. It’s called The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, written by British public health researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett who have produced an unprecedented rediscovery of the causes of so much of today’s anger towards the institutions of government and finance.
The book was called to my attention by a Canadian reader, Dr. Rob Dumont, a PhD, from a prominent and wealthy family. In a reply to one of my pieces on poverty, he quoted from the book to tell me that according to its central thesis, the growing gap in many countries between the haves and the have-nots is responsible for more than the misery of poverty.
According to the book, such health and social problems as “Obesity, Mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, homicides, imprisonment rates, lowered life expectancy, overconsumption of resources, teen pregnancy and the lack of social mobility,” all have in common strong links to inequality of wealth.
Interestingly, the authors, who have exhaustively documented their work, do not denounce the wealthy. Rather they point out that the most affluent citizens as well as the most wealthy countries also suffer from these ills. Their analysis mocks the American Declaration of Independence which proclaimed, “all men are created equal.” The original sin of slavery gave lie to that promise and the lack of equality has taken a toll in this nation even today.
As one knowledgeable Amazon reviewer, Dr. Nicholas P. G. Davies, a Briton, wrote,
“Inequality issues are often presented as being about the poor, but this book shows we are all poorer for living in more unequal societies. Inequality is as bad for the rich as it is for the poor. Society is poorer as inequality becomes greater.”
As Wilkinson and Pickett make clear with dozens of graphs, which rate the nations based on the problems that come with inequality,
“The impacts of inequality show up in poorer health, lower educational attainment, higher crime rates, lower spending of social capital, lower cooperation with and trust of government.”
One graph that shows the “health and social problems are worse in more unequal countries,” makes these points:
“The U.S, Portugal and the United Kingdom rate high in the amount of income inequality. For the U.S., low taxes (by international standards), a weak trade union movement, low minimum wage and a tradition of individualism have resulted in a high level of income inequality.”
Indeed, the U.S., with its obsession with the market economy, has modest social programs, Social Security and Medicare, while most of the other 20 nations listed are social democracies with a broad array of social insurance benefits, including universal health care. Canada is roughly in the middle of the pack, along with France, Spain and Switzerland. Japan and the Scandinavian nations have the lowest income inequality, offering cradle-to-grave social programs.
Some critics suggest that the book cherry picks its statistics and the alleged problems to prove their point. But who could argue with the graph that puts the U.S., the richest country, almost off the charts showing the relationship between a huge income gap – perhaps the highest among civilized countries – and such health and social problems as infant mortality, higher than most European nations, homicide and imprisonment rates (the highest in the world), obesity, child well-being (poverty among children has reached new heights) and drug and alcohol addiction?
Any thinking American can verify the sad truth in another graph that shows these health and social problems are worse in more income-unequal states. With the rise of unfettered rapacious, anti-labor capitalism, which touted sweatshops and child labor, income inequality rose to criminal levels.
And today, as you might expect, the southern states, namely Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Florida “have high levels of income inequality and much poorer outcomes in the health and social areas.”
These states also have the highest levels of poverty and the lowest levels of education attainment, and in the last couple of years, income inequality has become worse throughout the United States, especially in the industrial north, as a result of the 2008-9 recession which has increased home foreclosures, personal bankruptcies and the numbers of Americans – nearly 50 million – struggling against poverty or near poverty.
Yet at the same time, the rich are becoming obscenely richer. Michelle Singletary, reported in the Washington Post last month that while the average income for the top one percent of earners rose 281 percent, or $973,000 per household, in the last decade, the bottom fifth saw their incomes increase 16 percent, or $2,400 per household.
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who wrote the forward for the American edition of the book, noted that today’s CEOs are paid more than 350 times that of the average worker. Surely we’ll see the results of such inequality in health and social problems in the next few years.
In his inaugural speech, President Obama said, “The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” But that’s exactly what has happened as bankers have made huge profits and gotten scandalous bonuses while real unemployment reaches towards 15 percent.
Franklin Roosevelt fought the economic royalists of his day to help Shirley Sherrod’s Georgia get electricity and survive the Great Depression with the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Works Progress Administration. What has Obama done?
One can blame the Republicans or the U.S. Senate, but where is the leadership of the President? It won’t do to give Ms. Sherrod a job. Platitudes like, “I feel your pain,” are not true. It might help to use the powers of his federal government to put Americans to work. But as she said,
“Folks with money want to stay in power and they’ll do what they need to do to stay in power...It’s always about money, y’all.”
Find out more about Spirit Level, at the excellent British web site, The Equality Trust, which supports the messages in the book.
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