High Inequality Corresponds to Low Social Health

When you compare nation to nation, there’s no correlation between wealth and life expectancy or mortality. Rich countries have about the same life expectancies and mortality rates as relatively poor countries, until you get into the really poor end of the spectrum. As long as a nation has per-person income above about $9,000 a year, further increases do nothing to increase life expectancy. That’s the nation-to-nation comparison.

But when we do a zip code to zip code comparison, we get a different picture. The poorer zip codes have higher mortality than the richer zip codes. If you took several of the poorest zip codes, created a new island in the South Pacific, put them all there, maintained their per-person incomes as they were, made a new island nation of them, they’d have decreased mortality. They’d be fine. But because they live near the wealthier areas, they perceive that difference. They see inescapably all around them that they live in a society that is set up to work others, but not for them.

There are various ways to measure inequality: We can compare the top X% to the bottom Y% for any X and any Y. And all the measures very closely correspond with each other, so it doesn’t matter much which one we use. One very common measure it the ratio of the top 20 percent to the bottom 20 percent. In Japan and four Scandinavian countries (combined), the top 20 percent bring in less than four times what the bottom 20 percent earn. The ratio is between 3.4 to 1 and 4.3 to 1. In the US, the ratio is 8.5 to 1: the top 20 percent get eight-and-a half times what the bottom 20 percent get. Singapore's inequality is even worse: the ratio there is 9.7 to 1.

As a people of faith, as a people of compassion, we care about our world. As a people of compassion, we need to know what’s going on.

An image that comes often to my mind is from a story of the Dalai Lama approaching someone he knew. He discovered that her leg was in a cast. He said to her, "What happened?" The Dalai Lama has a way of his compassion being so obvious on his face, and in his voice. So you have to imagine that simple question -- “What happened?” -- as the expression of a gentle man exuding compassion with every aspect of his being. That’s the image.

We take in the wonder of this world, and we also take in the broken-ness we see, and ask, “What happened?” What went wrong here? As a a people called to love, we ask, “what happened?” How can this social woundedness be healed? Let us see what we can learn.

Researchers created an overall measure of social health. The social health measure is an amalgam of various factors. High social health is comprised of low rates on these:
  • homicides,
  • obesity,
  • teenage births,
  • infant mortality,
  • imprisonment rates,
  • mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction),
plus high rates on these:
  • life expectancy,
  • children’s educational performance,
  • social mobility, and
  • level of trust.

Those are nine factors that go into an overall score of social health. It turns out that a country’s overall wealth does not correlate with social health. That is, as long as the per-person income is at least about $9,000. After that, more wealth has no effect on social health. Equality, however, does correlate with social health. Poor countries (as long as they are not so poor as to fall below about $9,000 per person per year) have greater social health the lower the ratio of the top 20 percent to the bottom twenty percent. Rich countries also have greater social health the lower the inequality among their citizens. Rich countries with high inequality have social health that is as low as poor countries with high inequality. Poor countries with $9,000 or $10,000 per person per year, but with low inequality, have social health that is pretty high -- as high as rich countries with low inequality.

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This is part 3 of 7 of "Our Spirits Long to Be Made Whole"
Next: Part 4: "Love Knows No Means. It Knows Standard Deviation"
Previous: Part 2: "Numbers to Know"
Beginning: Part 1: "Lost But Making Good Time"
"Come spirit come, our hearts control. Our spirits long to be made whole. Let inward love guide every deed. By this we worship and are freed." Verse 3 of "Thou I May Speak with Bravest Fire", words by Hal Hopson, melody from Trad. English. Hear the tune: click here.

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