It’s difficult for me to understand when people say that they don’t know what the Occupy movement is all about. Well, there’s a book that can help. It’s a book that really bowled me over.
It’s a book from England called “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger,” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, a pair of English academics. (It doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality — in Britain, carpenters apparently use a spirit level to see if things are even.)
It’s a book about the effects of inequality that have been measured by years of research. The authors gathered all the research and came up with some surprises. What is particularly surprising is that it’s not just the poor who suffer from inequality — we’re all victims.
If you want more information, as I expect you will, see their website, The Equality Trust, at www.equalitytrust.org.uk.
Inequality ruining society
Here are some of the shocking findings:
Physical health — People in more equal countries live longer, and fewer children die in infancy.
It’s not just the poor: Rich people in this country don’t live as long as the average person in a place like Denmark.
Mental health — World Health Organization surveys find that, in more equal countries, 5 to 10 percent of adults have suffered from mental-health issues, while in the United States, more than 25 percent have.
Drug abuse — People in more equal societies are less likely to use illegal drugs.
Prison — No surprise here: There are more prisoners in unequal countries. For instance, the United States imprisons people at 14 times the rate of Japan, a fairly equal country.
Obesity — In the United States, three-quarters of the population are overweight, and almost a third are considered obese. This, of course, affects physical health, with obesity leading to diabetes, heart problems and even some cancers.
Education — When countries are more equal, students do better at school. In particular, the United States has more high school dropouts and lower levels of test performance in math and science.
Violence — Homicide rates are higher in unequal societies, and even children experience it more. In the United States, a child is killed by a gun every three hours.
Trust and community life — This is really the key to all of the above. In unequal societies, there is less trust and less caring because everyone feels they’re competing for limited resources. They worry that if they don’t get their share, someone else will grab it. They don’t care whom they trample on to get what they want.
In particular, inequality fuels status competition: Everyone is fighting to be considered “somebody.” We often respond by trying to put others down. It’s very stressful to feel that others think they’re superior to you.
And in a culture of status competition, no one wins: There is always someone above you. You can never win in this game.
If, indeed, some make it to the very top, no one likes them anyway. The higher up you go, the more people feel envy and greed — not healthy emotions.
So, when people are unequal, their emotions are more negative. Everyone feels more stress: isolation, loneliness, anger, anxiety, envy and greed.
Us vs. them
This social component is particularly important because the biggest contributor to well-being is social connection. To be happy and healthy, you need to feel that you’re surrounded by people who wish you well. When wealth divides people, they’re pitted against each other.
For instance, right now, Congress is locked in a struggle. Millionaires feel they should be able to keep the Bush tax cuts that were supposed to expire. These cuts have a horrible effect on the deficit, with the potential for basic cuts to the middle class and the poor. The ultra-rich — the 1 percent — seem to not feel any empathy for the poor or middle class.
Of course, there are exceptions, but it seems as if the state of being rich tends to make people less caring.
I don’t know if the people in Occupy know all these facts about inequality, but they intuitively feel that they don’t live in a caring society, that it’s “every man for himself.” They sense that we’ll only survive when we understand that we need each other and that we need to create a culture that produces caring and empathy.
Humans are capable of being mean and ugly or caring and empathetic. The level of equality helps determine that.
CECILE ANDREWS is the author of “Less is More,” “Slow is Beautiful” and “Circle of Simplicity.” She can be reached [email protected].