During my Peace Corps years, while living in a small village in Nepal, I was provided with a living allowance on par with the headmaster of the school where I taught. I made just a little more than the teachers, plenty for village life, not quite enough to buy beer if I made it to Kathmandu. Not many beers at least.
The villagers lived well in what we would consider poverty: no running water; their only heat from the cooking fire; sleeping on mats; growing their own food. Slightly richer ones owned a few more fields, slate instead of thatch roofs, a water buffalo, maybe some carving on their window frames. Although they were poor, no one felt poor because everyone had about the same.
Data comparing countries—and U.S. states—where inequality (both income and wealth) is highest and lowest helps us correlate those inequality levels with the social, economic and psychological factors affecting the people who live there. Remember: these data do not illuminate causal factors, only correlations. Also, keep in mind that these data are not related to the level of poverty but instead to inequity. New York and Mississippi are similar in their high levels of inequality, but not in wealth.
The data expose a dire portrait of the harmful effects of inequality around the globe and across the nation. These imbalances are related to higher rates of health problems such as obesity, mental illness and schizophrenia, and social problems such as homicides, teen pregnancy, drug use and incarceration. Inequality also correlates with lower rates of what are called social goods such as life expectancy, educational performance, trust among strangers, women’s status, social mobility, satisfaction and happiness. In addition, wealth and income disparities and social stratification lead to higher levels of psychosocial stress, status anxiety, depression, chemical dependency, parenting problems and stress-related diseases. It’s not a pretty picture.
In the U.S. the ’50s were considered the halcyon “good ol’ days” when both social connectedness and civic engagement flourished. In the early ’70s that hope began to fray as our economic divergence expanded. Over the last 40 years we’ve seen these imbalances in the form of wages, housing, education, racial discrimination, child trauma, residential segregation, health insurance availability, intergenerational income mobility, job loss and incarceration. COVID-19 has further exacerbated many of these. While the rich are keeping up with the Joneses and buying their vacation homes, the poor are looking for that second job so they won’t be evicted, so they can purchase food, buy medicines and pay for heat through the winter. The poor wind up going into debt and entertaining riskier endeavors to stay afloat and are then criticized for these behaviors. That’s called blaming the victim.
There’s something morally bankrupt about punishing those who helped create the wealth of our nation by putting them under the economic and political control of the rich, working to deprive them of full participation in our democracy, denying their children opportunities to qualify for better education and the jobs they need to pull themselves out of poverty, depriving them of their share of the wealth their parents helped produce.
When vaccinations were being offered by Mark Twain Hospital, I registered right away and told all my friends about the number to call. In the following weeks many of them got vaccinated, people younger than me, people I’d called with the telephone number. I’m honestly happy for them but have this selfish why-them-not-me feeling as if they jumped my queue. Imagine how poor people feel when systemic inequality thwarts their efforts to improve their lives, save their lives. I can also understand why some lower-middle-class whites are incensed that other ethnic groups might “replace them,” that the poor are given a hand up by social programs, by affirmative action, provided with greater opportunities and jump ahead of them in line toward economic success.
It’s not being poor that’s the problem. It’s feeling poor in comparison to those who have so many entitlements, advantages and privileges. That’s what hurts. It’s not being in the line at the food bank, it’s needing to be there to survive when others don’t. It’s having to go to the emergency room when others have health insurance and primary physicians. It’s needing a public defender instead of being able to hire your own lawyer. It’s renting from a man who says he can’t stay long because he has four more of his rentals to manage. It’s the poor single mother standing in line in the middle of the month at the ATM needing to take out half of what’s left in her checking account to buy gas to get to her third job and seeing an ad on her phone questioning whether $1 million is a large enough retirement fund.
Poverty hurts but inequality is the killer. Next time you see that $1 million ad while standing in line at the ATM, think about the poor woman standing behind you.
Jim Pesout is a retired high school teacher who lives in Mountain Ranch. You can reach him at email@example.com.