Inequalities are not only unjust: they literally make us sick. This was the conclusion reached by the sizeable turnout at Left Unity’s January 31 forum: “Inequality, Health, And Wellbeing: Why Inequality Is Bad For Us.”
Much of Adelaide’s progressive community came together — Resistance and the Socialist Alliance, the Communist Party of Australia, the Adelaide Anti-Capitalist Forum, Occupy Adelaide, anarchists, and current and former members of the Greens — to hear why inequality has increased dramatically throughout the world over the past few decades.
The forum also heard the harrowing effects inequality has on physical and mental health and community wellbeing.
John Rice, Left Unity co-convener, explored the historical data behind expanding inequality. He noted how in nation after nation, the same year stands out: 1975 — the year that inequality began rising again, after several decades of stable or even declining inequality (the so-called golden age of welfare-state capitalism). This should not surprise us: 1975 roughly marks the start of the neoliberal project.
Why does neoliberalism generate deepening inequality? The reasons are familiar: deregulated labour markets and crippled trade unions; major cuts in social spending, affecting public education, health, housing, and community amenities; and the privatisation of essential services and utilities.
Rice explained that contrary to the claims of market-fundamentalists and their (often ambivalent) allies, growing inequality is not the natural outcome of ordinary market mechanisms. It is the product of relentless struggle by the 1% to reverse seemingly-declining rates of profit through enacting policies to shift income and wealth away from ordinary people.
But why does growing inequality make us sicker -- all of us sick, not only the most disadvantaged but the entire community?
Flinders University’s Professor Fran Baum explored the distressing evidence connecting rising inequality with deteriorating physical and mental health and community wellbeing; from heart disease and obesity to anxiety and depression, from domestic abuse and violent crime to civic life and social isolation.
The evidence is irrefutable: among wealthy nations — those with per capita GDPs of US $10,000 or higher — more equal societies are virtually always healthier and more socially rich than their less equal counterparts. They tend to be better off concerning almost every indicator of physical/mental/community wellbeing.
Often wealthy but very unequal societies do so poorly that they are outperformed by countries with per capita GDPs that are just a fraction of theirs. Hence Costa Rica outperforms the US regarding levels of infant mortality, life expectancy, and self-reported happiness.
The human costs of inequality are profound. Baum noted that as inequalities widen, communities fragment, becoming less cohesive and interconnected, while distrust and hostility increase. Individuals become isolated, a trend exacerbated by intensified competition for limited jobs and greater concern with social status.
Members of more unequal societies tend to be more concerned with how others rank them than in less unequal ones - as discussed by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why Inequality Is Better For Everyone. All of this generates elevated levels of stress hormones, and so mental illness.
Increased stress, aggravated by rising, and increasingly irregular working hours, also has major impacts on physical health. Australians now work the longest hours in the developed world.
Consider the predictable effects on diet and levels of exercise, not to mention the effects of stagnating/declining real wages on the quality of food individuals can purchase, as well as the established pathways between increased stress and high blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate.
These disturbing insights remind socialists and other progressives why the struggle to make inequality a defining public issue must continue. Contrary to the claims of many neoliberals, discussion about inequality has nothing to do with the “politics of envy”. It is a genuine life-and-death issue, not only a matter of justice but of the deepest importance to human wellbeing. As Baum said, “social injustice is killing people”.