Love Knows No Means. It Knows Standard Deviation.

The US is quite wealthy. Annual national income is around $38,000 per person.

But on the measure of social health (combined scores for life expectancy, infant mortality, homicides, obesity, teen births, imprisonment rates, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, children's educational performance, social mobility, and level of trust) we’re doing worse than most countries that have only half that much per-person income.

After meeting a certain minimum, more wealth doesn’t do us any good. What does correlate with social health is equality. Countries with high inequality, whether they are rich or poor overall, have worse social health. In statisticians' terms, it’s not the mean income that matters, it’s the standard deviation.

Assuming a minimum level of wealth (about $9,000 per person per year), if a country’s top 20 percent is making 4 or 5 times what that country’s bottom 20 percent is making, then that country’s social health is going to be pretty good. If a country’s top 20 percent is making 8 or 9 times what that country’s bottom 20 percent is making, then that country’s social health tends to be worse.

The US, for instance, is quite rich, and Portugal is relatively poor. Yet they both have high inequality and low social health. US social health (combined scores on the factors listed above) is roughly the same as Portugal’s.

The US and Norway, however, are both quite rich. Both countries have average income of about $37 or $38 thousand per person per year. Yet Norway has much greater equality – and much higher social health.

Researchers conclude:
“The evidence shows that reducing inequality is the best way of improving the quality of the social environment, and so the real quality of life, for all of us . . . this includes the better off.” (Wilkinson and Picket, The Spirit Level)
If we are to be charged full with the charge of the spirit, and carry that forward into our lives and into our world, we need a sense of how this should be so. If I’m poor, and I’m going to be poor anyway, how does it hurt me if you’re rich? That seems like a reasonable question.

I might not know how to articulate the answer, but if I’m poor, and you are, too, then I can feel like we’re in this together. I have a sense of common cause with you. We may not have much, be we’ve got each other.

Societies with relative equality (the top 20 percent earns less than 5 times what the bottom 20 percent earns) maintain some shared assumptions about wealth and about each other. Roughly, the attitude is:
If there are somewhat wealthier folks among us, that’s OK. I can accept that some people are luckier, or more skillful at work that society prizes, or they’re more driven to work hard, and they end up wealthier. The relatively wealthy serve as a reminder to me of what good schooling and commitment and a little luck might make available to my children. If the town doctor has a bigger house on a hill, that’s OK – he’s smart and had a lot of training, and he’s using that to help us when we get sick, so more power to him. Maybe my kid can get a scholarship and be a doctor.
If, however, the rich-poor gap grows too large, that attitude loses purchase. The ones at the bottom and middle can no longer see the wealth of the ones at the top as either attainable (by anyone who doesn't already have it) or deserved. That the previous paragraph sounds as quaint as it does is one of the indicators that the US rich-poor gap has been unhealthy for some time.

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This is part 4 of 7 of "Our Spirits Long to Be Made Whole"
Next: Part 5: "Roots of Joy, Roots of Despair"
Previous: Part 3: "High Inequality Corresponds to Low Social Health"
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.


  1. Excellent - thank you! You may want to use the gist of your message here to send a letter or email message to the New York Times in response to its cover story in yesterday's Sunday Magazine. It reports on a a book, "Unintended Consequences" by a former partner at Mitt Romney's Bain Capital, that makes the case that income inequality is actually good for society. The promise of striking it wildly rich encourages "art history major" types to get off their butts and and out of coffee shops, to work hard to invent innovative new products.

    Left unanswered in the article is how much innovative new products contribute positively to the social health indicators that you mention.

    1. We don't need innovative new products. We need rediscovery of a very old product: community connectedness.

      (And in my ideal community, I'll be surrounded by plenty of art history majors.)