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Monday, October 02, 2006

The Health Costs of Wealth Inequality - by John Robbins

Not that long ago in this country, you could raise a family on a single paycheck. If you were working, you didn’t have to worry about an unexpected medical bill making you homeless. If you were disabled, your basic needs were taken care of, and if you were elderly, you could count on benefits that made your final years restful and safe.

But real wages have been declining since the 1970s, and benefits have been deteriorating. Every year, more working people are losing their pensions and their health insurance.

Meanwhile, our wealth distribution has been becoming increasingly disparate. Today, many corporate executives earn more money in a couple of hours than the average factory worker makes in a year. The wealthiest 1 percent of America’s population owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. And the minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by 37 percent since 1968, and become the lowest of any industrialized nation.

What impact is this having on the health of our people?

Continued on "Print Article and/or Read More" below >>>
With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for nearly 50 percent of the world’s healthcare spending, yet ranks only 26th in life expectancy, and 28th in infant mortality. Is it a coincidence that not a single one of the 25 countries that have longer life expectancies than the United States, nor a single one of the 27 countries that have better infant mortality rates, has as wide a wealth gap between its richest and poorest citizens?

I once believed that the wealthier a society, the better would be the health of its people. And it’s true that those nations whose annual per capita income is below $10,000 often suffer from poor sanitation and malnutrition and have the poorest health. But studies have consistently found that above that threshold, the health of nations is no longer a matter of absolute income, but is actually more a matter of the gap between the rich and the poor. Above that point, the more unequally wealth is distributed, the less health will prevail.

Why is that? Societies in which the pie gets divided so that everyone gets a decent share are healthier because as well as having their basic needs met, people tend to participate in their community, trust others, and cooperate for mutual benefit. They are more likely to form friendships. They tend to care for one another. Their relationships are often marked by support, trust, and sociability.

History shows that wherever inequality of wealth distribution becomes extreme, however, people tend to become divided against one another, and societies tend to spend less on public health, education, and social safety nets. Large numbers of people feel chronically left out, powerless, anxious, angry, and afraid. In such societies, everyone— whether they are “haves” or “have-nots”—tends to become less trusting of their neighbors and less inclined to help others. The result is higher crime rates, increased violence, and higher rates of heart disease, depression, and many other debilitating and deadly ailments for both rich and poor.

Last week, the Trust for America’s Health issued a report finding that in the past year, obesity had increased in 31 states, while decreasing in none. The states with the highest rates of obesity are also those with the greatest wealth inequality.

There are so many ways that economic stress can compromise people’s health. Often, people struggling to meet their basic needs are left with little time to spend with their families.

I have a friend, a psychotherapist, who is a single mother. She lives in California where housing costs have skyrocketed in recent years, and she has to work very long hours to make ends meet. One day her eight-year-old son became so frustrated with her unavailability that he said, “If I save my allowance and give it all to you, then will you have time to listen to me?”

John Robbins is the author of Diet For A New America, and the just released Healthy at 100: The Scientifically Proven Secrets of the World’s Healthiest and Longest Lived Peoples,
The Health Costs of Wealth Inequality


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