Being at the bottom of the heap is stressful and depressing. It is bad for health. Poor people are about twice as likely to develop clinical depression and have substantially shorter life expectancy. Living in an unequal society is stressful because there is a pervasive insecurity and lack of social trust.
No hierarchy in the forest
Our remote ancestors lived in flat societies. One person had about the same social status as another.
Status differences increase in more complex societies. This may reflect greater political organization through tribal alliances, or the accumulation of wealth in the form of storable food (1). In either case, some individuals acquire power over others whether it is via a military threat, or through ownership of property.
Our egalitarian foraging ancestors had no need for elaborate status differences. (The headman or headwoman was a servant leader). Moreover, they actively resisted anyone trying to dominate them (2). This phenomenon is familiar to anyone who has ever seen employees make fun of their boss to take him down a peg or two.
Such efforts could not prevent the rise of despotic regimes, such as the unequal world of the Pharaohs, with the emperor posing as a deity and exercising the power of life and death over everyone else.
The ups and downs of inequality
Since the demise of early civilizations like Ancient Egypt, equality was challenged by the rise of despotic monarchs such as Henry VIII of England. Such rulers were subsequently checked by the rise of parliamentary democracy, not to mention the gallows and the guillotine.
Over time, as the middle class rises, they assert themselves in more democratic government through labor laws, minimum wage statutes, and other legislative actions designed to protect the rights of workers (3). The net effect is a more equal society. This phenomenon is most fully expressed in social democracies like those of Western Europe where there is far less income inequality than is true in the U.S.
Inequality causes depression and illness
Peasant communities have far lower levels of depression than urban societies. There are many possible explanations but one key factor may be that farming communities are far less interested in status striving. Subsistence farmers did not try to impress each other with limousines and caviar. Status differences were minor.
When farmers migrate to cities, vulnerability to depression increases as they experience a larger gap between rich and poor and notice that they are on the lower rungs of the ladder.
Inequality undermines health. This phenomenon may be illustrated by diminished life expectancy despite advanced medical science. U.S. average life expectancy at birth is 78 years compared to 81 years in Sweden and 82 years in Japan, social democracies that enjoy a more equal distribution of income and better support systems for the poor.
Looking at specific health issues helps to explain why more unequal countries have lower life expectancy. High levels of cardiovascular disease is one telling issue because this is the leading cause of death. The psychological cause is stress and heart disease increases where living conditions are harshly competitive.
Inequality is a key factor in obesity (3). Very unequal countries, such as the U.S. have exceptionally high levels of obesity compared to more equal countries such as Japan. About one American adult in three is obese whereas only about one Japanese person in forty is obese, for instance. The problem is worse for lower income groups consistent with the idea that it is a product of economic, and psychological, stress.
People in unequal societies eat more as well as exercising less (3). Over-eating reflects a broader pattern of debt and over consumption linked to showing off. Lower activity has complex causes, reflecting a perception of manual work as humiliating, reduced community involvement, and the fact that most gyms, and sports clubs, are prohibitively expensive and deliberately exclusive.
Unequal societies are more stressful because there is less social trust and higher crime (3) and because virtually everyone feels deprived of the good things of life enjoyed by the wealthy few. So keeping up with the Joneses makes people fat and sick as well as sad. Forget that!
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/
2. Boehm, C. (2000). Hierarchy in the forest. Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press.
3. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.