Does Inequality Kill? Part Three

Inequality kills is pretty harsh language, so in order for it to be true I think it has to be established that life for the poor is also harsh – so harsh, that being poor is not only life altering but life threatening.

There are many ways to enter into poverty. One way is to be born right into it. The following news story aired 11/09/2014 on Weekends With Alex Witt with the tagline “New research shows rich babies eat healthier than poor babies.” http://on.msnbc.com/1uSEU97 In summary, it showed that babies born into poor families had less healthy diets than those who weren’t and that these poorer diets had negative consequences that lasted years after infancy. Even more correlated than money to healthy eating was education- education being positively correlated with healthy eating. In other words, if parents know what’s best for their children they will most likely do what’s best for their children, including being more stringent on the types of foods they feed them.

It doesn’t surprise me that parent education was more correlated with types of diets than income itself. A baby’s capacity for learning and development isn’t directly determined by how much money the mother makes; a baby’s genes aren’t continually being reprogrammed based on some magical connection they have with their parents’ bank accounts. There are other consequences of being poor that are impacting how well parents can provide for their young. As illustrated by this news story- originally published in the Washington Post- the relationship between poverty and education is showing that expecting poor mothers are less knowledgeable about the long term health consequences that sugary and fatty foods can have on their children. Since unhealthy foods are commonly cheaper than healthy foods, poor parents are more likely to feed their children the more affordable, less healthy options. If they don’t know that one type of food is significantly worse for their child than another type, why wouldn’t they make the choice based on affordability?

The news story introduced me to the term “food inequality.” Just like the income gap between the rich and the poor is growing, so is the food gap- meaning wealthier people are eating better and poor people are eating worse. If you just looked at overall averages you would see healthy foods are flying off the shelves at grocery stores at higher rates than ever before, and you would think that Americans are eating healthier overall. But these types of purchases aren’t increasing for people of all income levels. Healthy eating opportunities and information about healthy food is not making it all the way down to those in the lowest income brackets in this country.

I see this firsthand when I go back home to visit family in Clearfield, PA. According to the 2010 Census, Clearfield County was ranked 61 out of 67 counties in terms of per capita income- at a whopping $20,142. This is where I grew up and where my family lives. I now live in Chester County which was ranked first of all Pennsylvania counties in per capita income. The differences in access to healthy food and the overall food culture between these two counties is incredible, especially if you compare West Chester to Clearfield.

There aren’t countless grocery stores, farm-to-table restaurants, food co-ops, farmers markets, and a growing culture of foodies in Clearfield. There aren’t numerous yoga studios or cross-fit gyms pushing healthy eating as a critical component to overall fitness and mental health. There aren’t juice bars and restaurants stretching their creative limits to expand the vegetarian options on their menus. In other words “food knowledge” isn’t being spread in Clearfield at nearly the same rate it is in West Chester. Not only that, but there is a whole revenue-generating industry around heathy eating that is essentially non-existent in Clearfield that is thriving in West Chester. As a consequence, there is a noticeable difference in the overall health between the two towns, and not just amongst children. Actually, the differences seem to get larger over time as the negative impacts from the earlier developed bad habits begin to worsen.

At this point we’re not quite at “inequality kills,” but unfortunately children born into poverty are more likely to have less educated parents and have poorer diets, which puts them at a higher risk for things like stunted growth, obesity, and diabetes. And, if they are born into more desolate regions devoid of a thriving economy and idea flow, the likelihood of these ailments becomes even worse.

Let’s stay on the theme of education but shift the focus away from healthy eating to finance. People at the bottom of the income scale aren’t getting the right financial training they need to make the right choices about money. John Hope Bryant wrote a book called How The Poor Can Save Capitalism and he focuses much of his work on “financial literacy.” Even now, especially in poor communities, many people don’t understand the importance of having a bank account let alone good credit, savings, and retirement funds. There is a general misunderstanding how to intelligently borrow or invest money, and understanding the stock market- forget about it. (Although, the stock market thing is most people, right?)

When I was a younger man in the Army I was also pretty financially illiterate. I can recall going into a Best Buy to purchase a TV and being presented with an offer to open a store credit card to get a 10% discount. Part of the deal was that if I paid the TV off within six months I wouldn’t have to pay any interest. Even though I could have paid for the TV right there on the spot, I decided that I would just pay for half of it up front and put the other half on the card. I was thinking this would be a good way to start building credit, plus I had a full six months to pay for the rest of it. In my naivety, when I received my first bill for ten dollars, I just ignored it because in my head I had six months to pay it off. I was just going to wait until the following month and pay it all off in one shot. Are you smiling at my rookie mistake yet? Of course, it didn’t work like that. Since I didn’t pay my bill on time, the next month my bill sky rocketed to more than three hundred dollars with late fees and penalties tacked on to it. Of course I was shocked, and I didn’t have the money to pay the entire amount, as I was only expecting to pay two hundred dollars, which was how much I would have owed if I wasn’t paying late.

By the time it was all said and done, I had paid more than seven hundred dollars for a four hundred dollar television and I had to cancel the Best Buy card. I established some credit alright; bad credit. Bad credit doesn’t just impact one’s ability to borrow money in the future, but it makes it harder to obtain employment, as a lot of private employers run credit checks on all of their applicants. It makes it harder to put utility bills in your name so you can do things like heat your apartment. Many utility companies require large deposits from customers with poor credit ratings.  Speaking of heating an apartment, bad credit also makes it harder to rent one. Landlords might require co-signers or increased deposits to let someone with poor credit rent from them.

Can you start to imagine the stress level that begins to build up for someone that just doesn’t have a lot of money? How is someone who is living paycheck to paycheck supposed to come up with all of this extra money required to do the above mentioned things? If a person was born into poverty it is not likely that he has anyone to fall back on for financial support, and it is less likely he has a close family member that has good enough credit to act as a co-signer for an apartment or a car loan.

When someone begins to feel the financial squeeze coming at them from all directions things start to get scary. It’s hard to know when the fight or flight instinct is going to kick in and in what form it will manifest itself. If someone has enough connections and knowhow they could turn to a life of crime. For some that might be selling drugs and for others home invasions or moving stolen goods. Others might take to self-medicating with various street or pharmaceutical drugs. And I challenge people to not see these thoughts or behaviors as irrational, but rational. As John Hope Bryant says “to rationalize is to tell rational lies,” and it does not take a whole lot of imagination for a down and out person under stress to rationalize that turning to crime or drugs is the only viable option for them.

At this point I have argued 1) that being born into poverty makes an individual more likely to be physically unhealthy and suffer developmental issues as a consequence 2) information does not circulate through poor communities at a comparable rate to wealthy communities, impacting public health and economic opportunity in those communities, and 3) financial burdens are perpetuating poor financial decisions and creating high stress environments having real health consequences, and generating public safety concerns.

It’s also important to try and understand holistically what people on the less fortunate side of economics are going through on a day to day basis. The world is smaller for people with less money because there are only so many neighborhoods in each town and city where they can afford to live. Unfortunately these neighborhoods frequently come with higher crime rates and fewer community services for people who need them the most. Property values remain stagnant and school districts typically struggle.

Additionally, people know that they’re poor and that there is a better life out there. They just don’t know how to get it. Worse that that is many don’t believe that an easier life is possible or that they even deserve one, which is when real poverty emerges- if you believe that poor is a state of being; whereas, poverty is a state of mind.

It really is quite an achievement for someone to be raised in a poor family, in a poor neighborhood – with high crime rates, in an underperforming school district; to turn out to be physically healthy, have no problems with the law, perform well in school, and not be victimized and psychologically beaten into a state of despair or depression. If someone is fortunate enough to make it through all of that generally unscathed, their dedication must continue so that they may learn the right financial and life skills they need to break the cycle of poverty that has most likely been in their family for generations. They won’t be able to lift their entire family out of poverty, but they can hope to ensure their own kids have a better start than the one they had.

Does inequality kill? I am not overly concerned with the yes or no answer to this, but I don’t think it is an outlandish or even unfair claim to make. If I am born poor, I am more likely to have developed an unhealthy diet- before it was even my choice- potentially having serious health issues as a result, be less educated, live in a more violent neighborhood, be more financially illiterate, all of which will undoubtedly lead to self-image and confidence issues that could lead to depression, drug addiction and affect my ability to be a fully functioning member of society.  I do believe you could make a strong statistical argument that the likelihood of dying outside of natural causes is higher for people that are under the poverty line.

By no means am I saying that being poor is a death sentence. It definitely is not. Many people find a way to pull themselves out of the gutter helping to draft the blue print for getting more and more people on their feet again. I’ve personally crossed the poverty line in both directions more than once in my life, and I cherish every struggle I’ve ever gone through as they have all helped mold me into the person I am today. But I can tell you that there are unwarranted struggles that people go through everyday because either wages or social safety nets have not kept up with this fast paced ever changing way of life that results from an economy that requires constant growth and quick profits. People are struggling and we have to do better than calling each other names and denouncing the poor as second rate citizens looking for handouts.

Conclusion

This three part inequality blog series started some time ago as a reaction to the below statement made by Pope Francis.

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.

I wasn’t challenging His Holiness, nor do I think he needed me to step in to legitimize his claim. But determining how I could build an argument around this statement was a good way to start digging deeper and finding out what inequality is in America and what are its consequences. Honestly, I think the above is a blunt but fair criticism of a laissez faire economic system that is lacking the appropriate controls to ensure that a certain quality of life is protected for all.

Is it harsh to say our economy kills? Sure. But if that is what it takes to “re-humanize” the struggling people in this country then so be it. We talk about everything in this country as an abstraction or a statistic. We don’t really talk about unemployed people anymore. Instead we talk about the unemployment rate. We talk about poverty, but not poor people. We talk about social security and entitlements and budgets and overarching economic policy, but we keep failing to make the connections these ideas or policies have to real people.

I think this blog series could probably go on forever. Really smart people have written really big books  on inequality, so I don’t think that I have provided the most comprehensive perspective on such a complex topic. But if you’ve taken the time to read these pieces, I hope you found them informative and feel free to add to them or provide a different perspective.

As always, thanks for reading.

(Originally posted on my old website. This version is slightly edited from the original posting.)

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