Stronger Societies

The recent upheaval in Egypt and the rumblings in other Arab countries reminded me of an interesting interview I heard with two professors of epidemiology. These two British scientists have studied how income inequality hurts societies and affects the health of nations. They also have a book out.

Normally, epidemiologists work at understanding and reducing public health risks. They look for patterns of disease and work at identifying the factors causing disease or injury. Epidemiologists usually are thought of focusing on viruses like the bird flu or the H1N1. But for this study they looked at the health and well-being of the citizens of the top 25 wealthiest countries.

Some of the categories investigated were feelings of trust towards their fellow countrymen, violence, unplanned pregnancies, life expectancy, and well-being. Raising incomes and material standards of living is known to increase the quality of life for people, but after a certain point (in the US it’s an income of around $50,000 a year) the major gains hit a point of diminishing returns.

The findings claim that health is strongly protected by friendship and is damaged by low social status. As the difference between the richest and the poorest people in a country grows so do the health and well-being of the citizenry. More income equity, they claim, makes societies stronger. And it all seems to stem from the feeling of low status that results from large income inequalities.

They also claim the way a lower income inequality is achieved doesn’t seem to matter. In the US for instance, Vermont and New Hampshire both have low income inequality rates. In New Hampshire this results from a smaller difference in earnings between the highest and lowest paid; while in Vermont, higher tax rates on higher earners is the cause of the lower income inequality rate. But both states rate high on the areas investigated. On the level of countries, the results are the same! Japan is similar to New Hampshire and Sweden is like a large Vermont when it comes to how income inequality is addressed.

The findings of the epidemiologists is not accepted in all quarters, but enough people are convinced that it was in the mix at the recent Davos meeting of world political and business leaders. Decision makers and planners can’t try to effectively get to where they want to be unless they’re able to see the world as it is and why it is the way it is. This might help provide part of the map that leaders need to help find the way for people to have better lives.