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Too Much Inequality Harms Society

Robert Fuller: Within American society, it's not the absolute income levels of states that determines their social well being, but rather the level of income disparity, as is the case with nations. Economic inequality and social dysfunction go hand in hand.

An important book substantiates something that many social psychologists have long intuited. Published first in Britain and then the United States, it’s by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, and its title conveys its message: The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

Too Much Inequality Harms Society

Wilkinson and Pickett show conclusively that the wellbeing of whole societies is correlated not with average income but rather with the size of the disparity of income between the top 20% and the bottom 20%.

Countries with smaller disparities like Norway, Sweden, and Japan (4 to 1) have fewer medical, mental, crime, and educational problems than countries like the U.S., Singapore and Portugal with higher disparities (8 to 1). France and Canada both have mid-range disparities (6 to 1) and place in the middle on health, education and psychological indicators. The book shows scattergrams, but the actual correlations, which are surprisingly high, can be found on Wilkinson’s website.

Within American society, it's not the absolute income levels of states that determines their social well being, but rather the level of income disparity, as is the case with nations. Economic inequality and social dysfunction go hand in hand.

It's one thing to demonstrate the social benefits of egalitarianism, and another to spell out the underlying political, economic, and psychological mechanisms that explain these findings. Only as we understand how income disparity works will we be able to generate the political will to undo the damage.

Dignity and Its Enemy--Rankism
An explanation of the social dysfunction of large income disparities can be organized around the notion of rankism. Rankism encompasses racism, sexism and the other similar forms of injustice. It is behavior that diminishes human dignity--black or white, female or male, gay or straight, immigrant or native-born, poor or rich, etc.

Rankism is the abuse of power attached to rank. A difference of rank alone does not cause indignity, but abuse of rank invariably does. Put simply, rankism is what somebodies may do to nobodies. But just as not all whites were racists, so too not everyone of high rank is a rankist.

Rankism functions socially in the same way that racism does. No one doubts any longer that racism guaranteed self-perpetuating income disparities between the white majority and their black victims. In a parallel way, rankism marginalizes the working poor, as vividly described by Barbara Ehrenreich. David Shipler depicted the less fortunate as disappearing into a "black hole" from which there is virtually no exit. Once established, economic inequality, if it is steep enough, also perpetuates exploitation because it imprisons the poor in their poverty. When missing a single paycheck means homelessness, people are not likely to demand better wages or working conditions.

There is another reason that eightfold factors in wealth-disparity cause more social distress than factors of four. When the top 20 % are eight times better off than the bottom 20 %, more people are vulnerable to rankism because people in the middle quintiles are also separated from the top and bottom quintiles by significant differences in economic status and power. There is room for a greater number of interpersonal gaps in economic power within an eightfold than within a fourfold range of economic disparity, and this in turn makes for more interpersonal abuse. As the number of dignity gaps rises, so does the incidence of illness and social dysfunction.

Dignity is to the identity what food is to the body--indispensable. By confirming our identity and affirming our dignity, respect and recognition provide assurance that our place in the group is secure. Without regular validation, our survival feels at risk. Without proper recognition, individuals may sink into self-doubt.

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Dignity and recognition are inseparable. We can't all be famous, but fortunately recognition is not limited to the red carpet. We can learn to understand the effects on those who are either denied a chance to seek dignity, or from whom it is otherwise withheld. Once aware of the deleterious effects of "malrecognition," we can act against it as we now take steps to prevent malnutrition.

More than either liberty or equality, people need dignity. In contrast to libertarian or egalitarian societies, a dignitarian society is one in which everyone, regardless of role or rank, is treated with equal dignity. The findings reported in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better suggest that as societies become more dignitarian they will, in the words of the subtitle, "do better."

A startling example of this proposition comes from, of all places, our prison population where indignity and malrecognition are endemic. Recent work done under the auspices of The Center for Therapeutic Justice in Virginia indicates that the recidivism rate for inmates who serve their sentences in a dignitarian community drops from 50 % to 5 %.

Social Isolation and Depression
In explaining their findings, Wilkinson and Pickett put the emphasis on the lack of trust fostered by large wealth disparities. Some thirty years ago a physician (Wolf) and a sociologist (Bruhn) teamed up to explain why, in the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, there was a group of poor Italian immigrants whose health and welfare were vastly better than their neighbors. After a twenty year study of immigrant families in Roseto, and a comparable study in a nearby, non-immigrant town, they found that health and welfare were dependent on what they called cohesion, the opposite of isolation and the antithesis of distrust. As the younger generation adopted their neighbors ways of geographic and status mobility, their health and welfare levels decreased to the level of the neighbors.

In addition to directly affecting health and welfare, disconnection has an effect on the emotions. Just as being closely connected with others leads to authentic pride, so disconnection leads to shame and humiliation. The isolated person is apt to feel rejected, if not completely worthless, and live in a more or less permanent state of shame.

robert fuller

One way of defending against the shame of malrecognition is to withdraw, sometimes all the way into the isolation of depression. Such withdrawal then leads to further isolation, which in turn compounds the rejection by the community and accelerates the downward spiral. Again, malrecogntion compounds into social dysfunction as confirmed in this eye-opening and persuasive book.

N.B: Thomas J. Scheff co-authored this post. He is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He blogs for PT at Let's Connect.

by Robert W. Fuller

Robert Fuller is the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuses of Rankism.

Republished with the author's permission from Psychology Today