Income Inequality and Societal Health

Recently, we’ve heard and read demands from some that our tax dollars not be taken “against our will” and given to “those who refuse to produce anything.”  How do these folks know their money is going to “people who refuse to produce anything?”  There’s no evidence of this.  Where are these slackards and ne’r-do-wells?

The fact is most tax dollars go to businesses and organizations to provide services and to state and local governments which in turn provide other services through businesses and organizations.  Their employees are recipients of the money but only in a context of working to earn it.  Employees, in turn, buy goods and services from businesses.  Our entire workforce is not a bunch of non-producers.  They’re taxpayers too!

And what about the case of the government paying for health care for those who cannot pay, such as Medicaid and SCHIP?  That money never crosses the palms of the patients.  It goes directly to the providers of health care and their WORKING employees. The patient gets the benefit of treatment, which may enable them to work rather than sit at home sick or die.  It improves their quality of life and enhances their future, but they can’t “bum a living” off health care assistance.  The same applies to the food stamp program which pays in food and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) which is, as its name, “temporary.”  So, there are few refusing non-producers under those rugs either.

Also, strike from the pack of non-producers those 18 and under who are not yet of “producing” age and the retirees who already “produced” for many years.  And strike those in higher ed or technical schools who are still learning how to “produce.”  Then there are those with debilitating illness that are unable to work.

About 10% of the working age population has applied for unemployment assistance – this generates our official unemployment rate.  Since seeking a job is a necessary condition for obtaining assistance, unemployment recipients are actively trying to return to “producing” something.  The unavoidable conclusion is that there can’t be many “people who refuse to produce anything” receiving government assistance.  They may be out there, but they’re not living on your tax dollars.

This reminds me of the phantom “welfare Cadillac” that conservatives claimed a woman – of course a woman of color – drove, back in the day.  Supposedly the Caddy, that strangely could never be located, was funded by the taxpayers.

Why are some of us so irrationally distrustful of our fellow human beings?  Why did a “tea party” crowd verbally assault a man with Parkinson’s Disease who sat at a rally with a sign saying he needed health care coverage and they might too some day. They called him a communist, threw money at him and taunted that he was just looking for a handout. It was sickening to see someone abused in that way. (One of his tormentors has now come forward to apologize, expressing shame for his behavior.)  And now, why are our elected representatives who supported health insurance reform being subjected to threats of violence, racial and ethnic slurs, and acts of vandalism?  All they have done is extend to all Americans the access to health care enjoyed by people in all the other advanced nations of the world.

The answer to “why?” rests, in part, in purposefully ramped up mob behavior.  However, another more significant part of the answer can be found in a book I recently read: “The Health of Nations:  Why Inequality is Harmful to Your Health” by Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce P. Kennedy.  This book is a real eye-opener for those who would see.  Their prescience, in 2002, of the recent economic collapse is astounding.  Years before it occurred, they touched on all aspects of the collapse – the housing boom, the deregulation, the power of corporations, the media, consumerism, income inequality, credit debt and even the derivative trading on Wall Street!

The book is not based upon hunches and opinions, but on solid research – comparisons of countries and of states within the US regarding economic measures and indicators of societal health.  The economic measures were things like personal income, taxation, employment, GNP, ownership, savings, hours of work and wages.  The measures of societal health were things like life expectancy, infant mortality, child abuse, suicide, mental health, school dropouts, divorce, teenage pregnancy, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, participation in community organizations, voter participation, attitudes toward government and personal expressions of cooperation, happiness and trust/distrust for others.

Note the last item.  Some of this research specifically examined feelings of trust/distrust for other people. Typical research questions asked if people felt that “most people can’t be trusted” or that “most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance.” In a 1999 study, more than HALF (!) of Texan research subjects agreed that most people can’t be trusted and ALL of the states in which more than half agreed with that statement were southern US states!  It’s sad that so many viewed their fellow beings so harshly.  There’s no way it’s the truth; it’s irrational.

Where does it come from and why is distrust so much more common in the US and in southern US states?  Those who favor laissez-faire capitalism and elimination of social programs are not gonna like the findings of this research.  While I’m sure it was not intentional, conservative/libertarian political and social policies of laissez-faire capitalism and disinvestment in social programs have resulted in a large and growing gap in disposable income between the wealthy and the rest of us.  And greater income inequality has led directly to downward trends in virtually all measures of societal health.

In “The Health of Nations” the authors report that “Between 1947 and 1973, American families at every step of the economic ladder enjoyed income growth – and the poorest families had the highest growth rate of all.  But, beginning in 1973, the economy began registering sharp increases in both earnings and income inequality.”  Between 1977 and 1999, the income of the wealthiest 1% rose 115% while the income of the poorest 20% actually dropped by 9%.  The authors reported that in 2002, “Forty percent of American families are either no better off or worse off today in real terms than they were back in 1977.”  That was in 2002; it’s gotten measurably worse since then.

Among advanced nations of the world, the United States is the richest, but has the 2nd highest income inequality (Singapore is 1st) and has far more health and social problems than any other country.  Among US states, southern states, including Texas, are among the highest in income inequality and have the highest frequency of health and social problems.  And in the US, especially in the southern states of the US, conservative economic and social policy has held sway for the last three decades.

Tax cuts for the rich have been paired with a suppression of earnings for the rest of us.  Anti-government actions such as tax and budget freezes have eroded our social capital and infrastructure.  We basically dismantled welfare for the poor, but the “welfare for the rich” continued apace, reaching its most egregious level in the recent bailout of the financial system.  In search of illusory “free markets,” deregulation of businesses and free trade agreements sent US jobs packing and corporate profits soaring.  The promotion of consumerism has urged everyone to “keep up with the Joneses” while doing so has become harder.

People are hurting, and in societies with greater income inequality, even the rich suffer a diminished quality of life.  Everyone has increased anxiety, greater alcohol and drug use, lower feelings of cooperation and happiness, and increased distrust both of other people and of social institutions.  We become the “me” society, not the “we” society, comparing ourselves to everyone else instead of seeing ourselves in everyone else.  Prejudice against “others” is heightened as we look around in anger and distrust, for someone to blame.

If medical researchers announced a treatment that would cure a serious disease or that a currently used treatment was found to be ineffective or even damaging to our health, would we not use the curative treatment or stop using the ineffective or dangerous treatment?  Rational people would do so and most of us are rational.  Most of us, even those who formerly advocated conservative public policy, are seeing that it has not worked for our society.  They’re able to see that the pendulum needs to swing back to re center our society.

We recently saw that, if health insurers are taking advantage of health care consumers, we can change that.  If our extreme income inequality, the worst in the world, is harming our society and causing us to have the largest frequency of social problems, we can change that as well.  We just need to raise our rational heads above the rhetoric, expose the misinformation, avoid the buzzwords, reject the politics of hatred and mistrust and focus on doing what works.

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One Response to “Income Inequality and Societal Health”

  1. Joyce Wright Says:

    this is a great read – I hope everryine reads it!!!!!!

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