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The Goal is Equality - part 2

Sunday, 4 May 2014  | Brian Edgar

Continued from The Goal is Equality - part 1




The ancient and obvious distinction between rich and poor stratas of society is one that can now be measured with some precision by the use of tools such as the Gini coefficient—a mathematical measure of income distribution. Zero represents perfect equality while one (or 100%) is complete inequality (where one person possesses everything).  In reality levels of inequity within nations vary from around 0.2 to 0.7 and when considering the world as a whole the figure is higher than for any individual nation.[1] As globalisation proceeds and a widespread awareness of the situation of people in other parts of the world grows it makes more and more sense to consider inequality in global and not just national context. The concepts ‘wealth’ and ‘poverty’ are relational rather than simply absolute terms and people’s perceptions of where they sit socially and economically have a significant impact on their sense of well-being.  It is normal to measure one’s own situation against that of one’s neighbours and with globalisation the range of possible comparisons is increasing. It is perhaps sad, but nonetheless unsurprising, to find studies that show that in both high and low income areas there is a tendency for an individual’s happiness to decline as their neighbours’ incomes rise.[2]

But it is not only those who feel they are being left behind who feel worse, other multi-country surveys find that people in more unequal societies—both rich and poor—tend to be less happy. Luthar’s review of psychological research on adolescents, for example, in wealthy American families observes, “By secondary school, these youths come to believe there is one part to ultimate happiness—having money—which in turn requires attending a prestigious university. They grow preoccupied with becoming marketable commodities, pursuing activities that will look good on resumes. There is scant time for exploration of who they are as individuals or for nurturing unique interests…. Wanting children to do the best they are capable of is certainly appropriate. But too often, what parents want is over the top. When children feel that their parents disproportionately value personal successes [in today’s grades or tomorrow’s careers] far more than they value their personal decency and kindness, the children show elevated symptoms of depression and anxiety.”[3] Being wealthy is not necessarily good for you.  Wilkinson and Pickett also show that higher rates of mental illness in more unequal countries cannot be explained away by saying that people have become more aware of anxiety. They argue that there have been substantial increases in actual rates of anxiety and depression, and this has been accompanied by increases in the frequency of behavioural problems. There has also been a rise in unhealthy forms of self-esteem, which is a kind of defensive attempt to shore up one’s confidence in the face of insecurities.  

The evidence is that levels of trust between members of the public are lower in countries and states where income differences are the largest. This creates a strong relationship between mental illness and inequity. This creates a kind of social stratification that entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions and creates a ‘status anxiety’, or a ‘luxury fever’—a concept similar to the ‘affluenza’ described by Clive Hamilton and Richard Dennis in the book of that name.[4] It should be noted that the evidence Wilkinson and Pickett use in their analysis is all existing, large-scale, government/official data. The innovation in what they do lies in the way that they accumulate the data and measure it against well-established measures of overall national income (which, once one has achieved developed status rarely produces better outcomes as overall income increases) and measure of equity (where outcomes frequently do improve with increasing social equity).

People with more education earn more, are more satisfied with their work and leisure time, are less likely to be unemployed or, more likely to be healthy, less likely to be criminals and more likely to volunteer their time and vote in elections. But more unequal countries and US states have worse educational attainment. But this is not so much a function of poverty as of inequity.

Consider violence and punishment. Violent acts are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, especially in their teens or early 20s and although the overall pattern of violence, measuring the rate according to age, is remarkably similar between developed societies the actual rate of violence is remarkably different and increases as social inequality increases. Part of the issue is that in more unequal societies children experience more bullying, fights and conflict, and there is no better predictor of later violence then childhood violence. Prison data also shows that more unequal societies are more punitive.

Another example is physical health and life expectancy. In rich countries, there is no relationship between the amount of health spending per person and life expectancy. The US, for example, has poor health outcomes despite large amounts being spent on health.  Inequality is associated with lower life expectancy, high rates of infant mortality, shorter height, poor self-reported health, low birth weight, AIDS and depression. Unless one looks closely, population averages hide differences in health within any population. But these differences are more dramatic within an unequal society.  Obesity, which is rapidly developing throughout the developed world is a major health crisis. It reduces the physical and social well-being. In the past the rich were fat and the poor were thin, but in developed countries these patterns are now reversed. Fat is a class issue, a function of social stratification, and income inequality may well contribute to the obesity epidemic. Figures show that levels of obesity tend to be lower in countries where income differences are smaller.[5]


Wealth is an ambiguous good, a view expressed in the oft-quoted saying attributed to numerous people, that money is like manure which, when stinks when piled in a heap, but which does much good when spread around. This ambiguity is also seen in biblical teaching which condemns inequity and warns against wealth but which also sometimes attributes a positive value to wealth.  A ‘biblical approach’ to wealth, if, indeed there be such a thing, is not easily summed up in a single sentence.  The wisdom literature, to take one example, points out that while poverty may be the result of oppression it may also be the result of laziness, pleasure-seeking or frivolity (Pr.6:6-11, 21:17, 23:21). Consequently, the 'poor' are not the same as the 'righteous'.  Yet the Lord still supports the cause of the poor (Pr. 14:31, 17;5). And while wealth can be an evil a positive value is also sometimes attributed to it (Pr.10:15). In fact, if one was to sum up what is said about wealth in the wisdom literature it would be necessary to say at least six things about it.

1)       Wealth is sometimes seen as a blessing from God (Exodus 3:8; Proverbs 10:22, 3:16, 8:18; Ecclesiastes 5:19).

2)       Wealth is also seen as a reward for labour by human hands (Proverbs 10:4, 12:11, 20:4, 21:17).

3)       Wealth can be seen positively as a security and a resource for human need (as in Proverbs 18:11, a theme also reflected in 1 John 3:16-17, Acts 2:44-47 and 4:32-35).

4)       However, the ambiguity of wealth is seen in the way that wealth can also be a symptom of economic injustice (Proverbs 13:11, a theme found in a number of the prophetic writings [Micah 6:10-12, Isaiah 3:14-15] and continued in the New Testament [Luke 1:51-53, 4:18-19]).

5)       As a result wealth can be deceptive and a spiritual hindrance (Proverbs 11:28 and also see Deut. 32:10-18, Isaiah 2:6-8 and the notions of wealth as ‘a stumbling block’ [Matt.19:16; Matt.13:22; Luke 9:1-3] and as a competing object of devotion [Matt.6:24]).

6)       And so, overall, wealth is definitely a secondary good and equality is better than wealth (see Proverbs 22:1, 30;8, Psalm 37:16).

[1] See the World Bank Gini Index for various countries at http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI 
[2] Andrew Leigh, Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia (Collingwood: Black Inc., 2013), Kindle Loc. 1140–42.
Suniyar Luthar, “Poor Little Rich Kids,” The Age 2013 (December 8): 21.
Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When Too Much Is Never Enough (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2005).
For further detail go to the informative and interactive Equity Trust web-site at http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk

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. An expanded version of this paper which also discusses quality in Australia will be published as a Zadok paper in 2014. You can subscribe to Zadok Perspectives and papers here.

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