A 2017 Oxfam study, “An Economy for the 99%,” reported that the richest eight people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people. To give this statistic an added perspective, while these eight billionaires could easily fit into a single van, the entire population of North, Central and South America totals only about 1 billion. In other words, those eight people have more wealth than three times the number of persons living in the Western Hemisphere.
In 2012, the average CEO in the U.S. earned about 350 times the average worker’s income. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that eleven children under age five die every minute due to poverty.
Author Keith Payne cites these statistics to show that the disparity between rich and poor has ramifications extending far beyond financial means. Payne examines how inequality divides us not just economically, but how it also has acute consequences for how we think, how we react to stress, how our immune systems perform and how we think about moral concepts, such as justice and evenhandedness.
“The Broken Ladder” provides in-depth analyses of the dangers of all of these expressions of inequality and their effect on us all.
Payne grew up poor in the Kentucky hill country and was terribly embarrassed when he discovered he was receiving free lunches when his friends were paying for theirs. His book explores how human beings react to realizations of inequity in their own lives. As a psychologist he has studied people’s innate sensitivity about status and investigates the “fundamental attribution error” which assumes another person’s successes and failures are their own doing. “The college graduate is smart. The drug addict is weak- willed. The person shopping with food stamps is lazy,” are just some of the assumptions we make about others which are detrimental to us all.
Payne purports most attitudes and actions are “shaped by particular situations” rather than by an individual’s nature. Most of the time, individuals have little control of their own situations, such as birthplace or social class.
The author contends, “The workplace is where most people experience inequality most directly on a daily basis.” The constant stress of workplace inequality can create physical and emotional problems. Nations with the least workplace inequality — Japan, Sweden, Norway—have fewer health and social problems than those with the greatest inequality.
The United States, with the most inequality of all developed nations, is the unhealthiest of all. Payne documents how the psychological stresses of poverty, racism and class inequality affects our bodies, leading to inflammation, heart attacks and other serious medical issues.
Coincidentally, as I was preparing this review, I came across a new study just published in the medical journal, “The Lancet.” It concludes: “For at least 40 years, research evidence has been accumulating that societies with larger income differences between rich and poor tend to have worse health and higher homicide rates. More recently, this has been contextualized by findings that more unequal societies not only have higher rates of poor health and violence, but also of other outcomes that tend to be worse lower down the social ladder, including teenage births, lower math and literacy scores, obesity and imprisonment.” This is one of many research projects that support Payne’s work on what he calls “the science of inequality.”
“The Broken Ladder” is filled with important social, psychological and economic perspectives that can help us understand the effects of unrestrained inequality and the countless problems that result. The author addresses why women in poor societies often have more children and why they often have them in early adolescence; how social status affects political beliefs and why unequal societies tend to become more religious.
He stresses the importance of our perceptions of ourselves. “If you place yourself on a lower rung, then you are more likely in the coming years to suffer from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain,” he writes. “The lower the rung you select, the more prone you are to weight issues, diabetes, and heart problems. The lower the rung you select, the fewer years you have left to live.”