Quick - what do South Korea, Finland, Canada, and Japan all have in common?
(a)They all outrank the U.S. in reading, math, and science
(b)Their citizens have higher life expectancies than those in the U.S.
(c) Compared to the U.S., they have far greater levels of income equality
(d) All of the above
In case you haven't guessed it, the answer is included in the body of this blog post.
Until very recently, it seemed that income inequality was the pink elephant in the proverbial room of American discourse. Sure, the lifestyles of the super-rich routinely littered our media landscape. But the expectation was that those watching would envy them, perhaps even resent them a little bit, but most of all want to be them. Viewers were expected to want their huge houses, multiple cars, and overpriced wardrobes, not to mention their lavish super sweet 16s and platinum weddings. Imagine if one of these shows or celebrity profiles was followed by a frank conversation about the state of income inequality in the U.S. It would never happen.
This is why I have been so excited to see the growth of Occupy Wall St, and its rapid spread throughout the country and even beyond its borders. Despite critiques about the movement not having a clear message, there's been one phrase that's captured the public imagination - "We are the 99%." It's not only the phrase, but the many honest stories by ordinary Americans written on pieces of paper or cardboard, that have resonated with people. The stories are compelling, and the slogan is clear - ordinary Americans are tired of seeing politics and media controlled by the richest 1%. The movement has grown to the degree that it cannot be ignored, even by the mainstream media, or by politicians who would rather see it just go away.
Income inequality (and wealth inequality, which is different but correlated) is not just about who gets jobs and material goods. Study after study has shown that low socioeconomic status negatively affects such essentials as academic performance and health and that the negative effects of individual low SES can be compounded by additional community level effects of living in a low SES neighborhood. In a conversation about multilevel modeling, one education researcher mentioned that his attempts to study the negative impact of low SES on academic performance in more egalitarian European countries didn't work because the disparate income levels he wanted to use as predictors simply couldn't be found.
While my pop quiz at the beginning of this post is based on cursory glances at data on academic performance, life expectancy, and income inequality, (btw, the answer is "d") there are reasons to believe that there can be systematic negative effects of income inequality on a national level. This means that, as opposed to the trickle-down theory that states that economic gain for those on the highest rungs of the economic ladder leads to better lives for those on the lower rungs, there may be more of a drag-down effect happening in which greater income inequality leads to a less educated, unhealthier, and altogether weaker nation.
One quote about the Occupy Wall St movement that has made its way through social media may bring a smile to some of the founders of community psychology - which, like many great things, sprung forth in the 1960's. Peter King, a conservative politician in New York, warned that the conversations resulting from the Occupy Wall Street movement can, like the protests of the 1960's, end up affecting social policy. And to that I say, yes we can.
Gina Cardazone, M.A.
University of Hawai`i, Mānoa