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The Goal is Equality - part 1

Monday, 7 April 2014  | Brian Edgar


 

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality…”

2 Cor. 8: 14-15

It is widely understood that children living in poverty have a high risk of developing social, emotional and behavioural problems but, perhaps surprisingly, as Suniyar Luthar reports, exactly the same risk exists for children from families with incomes significantly above the average. The research Luthar has drawn together about the way that children at the opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum have similar problems looks at drug and alcohol abuse, delinquency, cheating, stealing and the levels of depression, anxiety and self injury. The problems typically emerge during adolescence and the research shows that children from wealthier families tend to have higher than normal levels of problems, sometimes faring even worse than children from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The fact that similar problems are faced by adolescents at either end of the income spectrum is illustrative of the fundamental problem of social and economic inequality. Having either too much or too little is dangerous to one’s well-being. Many sense this intuitively. Others will immediately reflect upon the wisdom of Proverbs,

“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8).

 

It seems that having either too much or too little can produce a whole range of problems and it is not only children who suffer when there is too much inequality. The research is becoming clearer that the whole of society—and not only the poorer sector—is disadvantaged. Increasing the overall level of wealth does not automatically enhance the overall level of well-being of a society. Increasing wealth in poor and developing nations does, indeed, have immediate and widespread benefit, helping a society move from poverty, disease and hunger to a more economically developed situation, but after a society achieves a level of wealth roughly equivalent to that of one of the poorer developed nations such as Poland or Portugual then the automatic gains tail off and the critical element in increasing social well-being ceases to be the absolute level of wealth of the society. At that point increases in well-being for the society as a whole, including those who are wealthier, is more dependant upon the distribution of that wealth, that is, upon the level of equality. In fact, a society that is wealthier but with greater levels of inequality is likely to do worse on a wide range of social indicators than a poorer but more equitable society. Not only does wealth not buy happiness it does not necessarily achieve better physical or mental health, or greater life expectancy, or better levels of education or a more stable, more contented and less anxious society. And again, just to stress the point, it is not only those who are relatively socio-economically disadvantaged who are not so well off when there are high levels of inequality, inequity has adverse impacts on those who are well-off.

 

INEQUALITY AND WELL-BEING

There have been a number of recent studies of inequality in Australia, the UK and the USA. With The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (Allen Lane, 2009) Richard Wilkinson (an economic historian) and Kate Pickett (a health researcher) began a movement for equality in the UK that produced the advocate group the Equality Trust. Wilkinson and Pickett make the bold claim that most of the ills of modern society are either caused, or significantly influenced, by this one single factor—inequality. And this applies to social issues such as levels of mental health, physical health and life-expectancy, educational performance, sense of well-being, teen-age pregnancy, community life, obesity, levels of violence and the rate of incarceration of offenders. Their claim is that more equal societies do better at almost everything.

They have explored the validity of the intuitive belief that inequality is socially corrosive and that materialism beyond a certain level of fundamental needs actually inhibits the satisfaction of social needs. They conclude that while economic growth has benefited humanity by providing better health, increased longevity and higher measures of well-being and happiness that there is now evidence that developed societies have got close to the end of what economic growth can do in social terms.  In fact, as affluent societies grow richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems.

The law of diminishing returns operates in this socio-economic analysis. Among poorer countries, life expectancy increases rapidly during the early stages of economic development, but in middle income countries the rate of improvement slows down and eventually it disappears entirely in rich countries so that getting richer adds nothing further to life expectancy.  The great infectious diseases (tuberculosis, coroner or measles) that are common in the poorest countries gradually cease to be the most important cause of death. They are replaced with the so-called diseases of affluence (cardiovascular disease and cancers).

Social happiness or well-being is a function of social health factors including feelings of trust, positive social relationships, low criminality, low rates of metal health problems (anxiety, stress), good educational performance, high social mobility and minimal social dysfunction. While levels of happiness rise in the early stages of economic growth it then levels off in much the same way as life expectancy.  The evidence for this is not found in any new research undertaken by Wilkinson and Pickett. They have accumulated a huge range of existing international data that have been produced by governments and international organisations over many years. This gives their analysis great strength as it is based on widely accepted foundations.

One of the policy implications of this is that these various health and social problems should not be treated as separate issues with each needing separate services (whether health, police and prisons, teachers and educational psychologists, social workers psychiatric services, drug rehabilitation units etc). This does not deal with the underlying cause.  Reducing inequality is the best way of improving the quality of the social environment and the quality of life for everyone, including the better off. There is not one policy for reducing inequality in health and health problems; and another for dealing with inequality and educational performance; etc. Reducing inequality is the best way of doing both.

Andrew Leigh, Australian Federal parliamentarian, shadow assistant treasurer and former professor of economics at ANU, has produced Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia (Black Inc, 2013). He is also a great advocate of the notion that inequality is a core problem for the whole of a society rather than simply a way of saying that some people are worse off. But in his review of inequality in the Australian context he argues that Wilkinson and Pickett may have over-stated the case. The argument that inequality—as distinct from poverty—worsens social outcomes such as health and crime is, he suggests, based on insufficient evidence. Its effects, he says, on life expectancy and homicide are small or non-existent. Yet even in claiming this it is clear that the distinction between the effect of poverty per se, and the effect of inequality is difficult to isolate for Leigh also points to the way that in Australia the richest fifth of the population can expect to live six years longer than those in the poorest fifth. And if your household income is less than $20,000 you’re likely to have seven more teeth missing than someone with a household income that exceeds $80,000. 

 

In 2013 in the USA Robert Reich (a former official in both Republican and Democrat administrations including being Secretary for Labor for Bill Clinton) made a documentary Inequality for All that seems to aim at doing for equality what Al Gore did for climate change with An Inconvenient Truth.  Other important works on equality include Yugoslav economist Branko Milanovic’s The Haves and the Have Nots (Basic Books, 2010) and Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers our Future (Norton and Company, 2012). The focus in all of these is on economic inequality but ultimately this is intimately connected with the various types of social inequality that exist. Gender and racial discrimination, for example, inevitably lead to economic disadvantage. In the UK class and in India caste remain strong predictors of financial status.

In western culture, where poverty is primarily seen as an economic issue it is important to note the connection between social and economic in/equality. Our society would do well to note the way that, from a biblical perspective, poverty is not so much the absence of goods or money as much as a situation of dependence (such as that of the widow, the orphan, the homeless and the alien, see, for example, Exodus 22:22 and 23:6, 9 and subsequent prophetic judgments in Amos 2:6-8; Isaiah 3:14-15 and Jeremiah 22:13-16). That is, it is a social problem more than an economic one and therefore the basic solution is also social rather than financial. Those who are 'the poor' need people to act as protectors, friends and family. In this regard God’s people are to imitate the Lord Jesus who was known as a friend of the poor and outcast. The Epistle of James illustrates a deep concern about the effects of both social and economic inequality. Favouritism of those who have more is ruled out within the community of faith (1:9, 2:1-13); the rich are warned severely (1:9, 2:6-7, 5:1-5) and the poor will be lifted up by God (2:5, 4:6). Consequently, the life of faith is defined in terms of caring for the poor and outcast (1:27).


Suniya Luthar, “Poor Little Rich kids” The Age  Dec 8, 2013, page 21 - originally published in Psychology Today  Nov. 5, 2013

Brian Edgar is professor of theology and ethics at Asbury Seminary, Kentucky. You can view his blog on public theology at http://brianedgar.seedbed.com

Continued in The Goal is Equality - part 2


Comments

Ian Hore-Lacy
April 20, 2014, 9:37AM
That rings true!
But how to address it without quashing the entrepreneurial incentive which has historically moved societies from poor to sufficient (in economic development)?
Has social engineering with heavy taxation ever achieved this egalitarian nirvana?
Is the advent of a culture of substantial giving /philanthropy merely a pious hope?
I spent last weekend between the great affluence of mainstream Dallas, Tx, and the squalid poverty and sense of defeat of West Dallas - food for thought. (my good friend mentors a lovely kid there - both parents in prison.)

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