Sunday, April 29, 2012

Politics suppresses issue of income inequality

previously pubished in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 4/29/2012

It’s looking like a major theme of this year’s presidential election will be “fairness,” with a focus on income inequality. Of course, no serious discussion/debate about income inequality is going to occur as that will be swept aside in the theater of presidential politics.

Unfortunately, Democrats are framing the “debate” in terms of who has money and who doesn’t and increasing taxes on the haves while Republicans will counter with charges of class warfare, class envy and spending and tax cuts.

I’ve spent 25 years studying economic inequality. It’s too bad the topic isn’t discussed like a public health issue; don’t politicize the condition, politicize the solutions to it.

Yes, high income inequality negatively affects everyone, not just those on the low end of the income scale. Like pollution it negatively affects everyone, not just poor people (although it may affect them more).

Below, I am going to refer to data from The Equality Trust ( “The Equality Trust is an independent, evidence based campaign working to reduce income inequality in order to improve the quality of life in the UK.” They use international comparisons of mostly western-industrial democracies (Japan and Singapore are included) to make much of their case. For most of the comparisons, they measure income inequality as a ratio of the proportion of total income received by the top 20 percent of households to the bottom 20 percent of households. The data they present are graphical and easy to understand. Basically they are correlations between income inequality and incidences or rates of other things.

Income inequality is associated with negative physical and mental health. Singapore shows the highest level of income inequality with the U.S. close by in second, but the U.S. has the highest infant mortality among the compared countries (by a wide margin). As income inequality increases, so does obesity.

People like to chant that the U.S. is No. 1. Here are things the data show the U.S. is No. 1 in: obesity rates; drug abuse; prisoners per 100,000 population; murder rate (more than 50 percent higher than our closest competitor). The U.S. also has the highest rate of mental illness.

All these disparate “No. 1s” have one thing in common, our high level of income inequality. And it is not that we have really, really poor people, it is that our rich are so much richer than everyone else. The distance is astounding, creating very separate societies and realities.

No doubt many are thinking, “well, I’m not obese, I don’t know anyone who has been murdered, no one I know is in prison, I don’t use drugs and I am not mentally ill and don’t know anyone who is.” I’m not finished.

The graph for high school dropout rates and inequality shows data for the U.S. 50 states. And sure enough, the states with lower levels of income inequality have lower rates of high school drop-outs while those with higher drop-out rates also have higher rates of income inequality. Indiana is in the bottom quarter of drop-out rates and in the bottom quarter of income inequality. I wish they had a graph of the 50 states with the other international states.

Births to teens is easily the highest in the U.S. and we have very high income inequality. None of your family may be having babies while teens, but it is willful blindness to deny high teen birth rates don’t affect us all. And no doubt related to teen births is the association between income inequality and the UNICEF index of child well being. We lose our No. 1 rating there. Israel, New Zealand and the U.K. rate worse.

If these examples are not enough to convince you that income inequality negatively affects us all, then how about this: The more unequal a society is, the less likely people believe others can be trusted, so even if you trust others, others don’t trust you. Much of the experienced degradation of community and social life in the U.S. can be linked to increasing levels of income inequality.

I urge anyone interested in income inequality to visit The Equality Trust. There is more explanation of the observed associations as well as proposed remedies. Doing so won’t make you a liberal or want to vote Democratic, if you are worried about such things. Indeed, income inequality and its correlated “pathologies” are factual. It is the remedies we should be arguing over, not politicizing whether to acknowledge the problem.

1 comment:

Tom Steiger said...

I don't write the headlines for my essays. I don't care for this one, because the politics of income inequality actually is bringing much needed attention to the problem, but at the same time trivializes it. A better headline would be "Politics trivializes issue of income inequality."

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