As the issue of inequality has become more politically and socially salient, researchers are increasingly “connecting the dots”–finding and measuring relationships between social phenomena that may not appear on the surface to be related.
It’s one thing to measure economic distances; to draw conclusions about the ability of low-income workers to afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment, for example. Such statistics represent only a fraction of the social damage done by rising levels of poverty and inequality, but they do offer a window into individual struggles that lead to other, less tangible and/or immediately obvious harms.
The United Ways of Indiana recently issued a comprehensive analysis of the financial distress experienced by “Alice”– Alice being an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. These were households with income above the federal poverty level, but below the actual, basic cost of living. The research concluded that more than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, that 37% of Indiana households live below the Alice threshold, that these families and individuals have jobs, and many do not qualify for social services or support, and that despite the importance of their jobs to their communities, they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.
Other researchers are beginning to investigate the ancillary effects of living like Alice–including the consequences for physical and mental health of individuals, the diminished prospects of their children, and the effects of inequality on America’s social fabric.
The Brookings Institution, for example, recently issued a disheartening study about inequality and stress.
Income and opportunity are increasingly unequally shared in the United States. It turns out that there are also significant inequalities in happiness, stress, and optimism about the future… The poor have lower levels of life satisfaction than the rich, they are far more likely to experience high levels of stress and worry, and they are far less optimistic about the future. They are also less likely than the rich to believe in the American Dream: that hard work can get them ahead.
An important question is how far these inequalities relate to each other. One of most well-known connections is the one between income inequality and intergenerational mobility, labeled the “Great Gatsby Curve” by Alan Kreuger. The idea behind the curve is that inequality in parental incomes (and other means) will result in even greater inequality for their children, as children’s opportunities are increasingly linked to their parents’ means.
The report makes the case that stress related to issues of survival–can I pay my rent this month? Will I lose my job if I stay home with my sick child?–is significantly different in kind and impact from the sorts of stress experienced by middle and upper income individuals. Those issues–Will I get that promotion? Will I get into my first choice law school? Will Heather go with me to the prom?– just aren’t in the same league, stress-wise.
The whole study is worth a read, but I was especially struck by the finding that there was “a higher concentration of both stress and worry among the poor in more unequal MSAs. Stress levels among the rich, by contrast, were essentially the same across cities.”
It has long been known that societies with stronger social safety nets have lower incidents of social dysfunction: everything from out-of-wedlock births, to divorce, to crime and violence. A recent study highlighted by Vox connected inequality to death rates.
Eventually, perhaps we’ll recognize that remedying the costs of social dysfunction is more expensive than a social safety net, and far more expensive than paying people a living wage.