Sunday, July 01, 2012

. . . Can't get level

. . . the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil

I’ve been reading The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett lately. Recommended to me by a reader (Thanks Dave S), the title caught my attention immediately. I’ll review the book at in a few days.
    At the centre of Wilkinson’s and Pickett’s thesis is that it’s not poverty that breeds crime and addictions and school-dropoutism and all the other illnesses we’ve come to associate with slums, reserves and other places where incomes are low, but that the real culprit is inequality. I can hear you jumping to the question: “But inequality in what? Wealth? Education? Gender?” Wait for the review, but for now, let’s say it boils down to money. Let’s say the primary method by which our North American society is herded into strata is the possession of means, and that from that stratification all kinds of ills arise.
    This would, after all, be Biblical:   For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. (I Timothy 6: 10). (An aside: from the King James Version to the New English Version “the root of all evil,” turned into “a root of all kinds of evil.” I leave this significant difference to text scholars to elucidate.
    Think about the income inequality question at a more local level for a minute, let’s say the town of Glad in rural Maniskatchewan. The town has an upper-middle class group of astute business and respectable professional families who have done very well, earned a living over the years with enough surplus to build large houses, own several vehicles, spend winters in warmer climates, and in general, live securely and comfortably . . . plus. 

   But it’s also a place which some sociologists call “a Canora situation:” the modest housing abandoned by the wealthier citizens has been bought up by real estate entrepreneurs who rent them, primarily to social services who place their charges in them because they are all that’s available. Many of them happen to be young, unwed mothers, indigent families and individuals from nearby First Nations, seniors and poorly-educated younger persons from marginal farming areas north of town, etc.
    Glad has become a test case for the effects of income inequality, with a huge gap between the woman in the fur coat who doesn’t even check prices in the grocery store and the unwed mother who is down to Kraft Dinners for her children this week. They may well be courteous to each other as they pass in the grocery store, and the unwed mother may have benefitted on occasion from the can of soup the lady in the fur coat drops routinely into the food bank basket at the front door of the Groceteria.
    But it’s not these two women I’m concerned about. It’s their children and their grandchildren. What happens in school for instance, when children in cheap and worn clothing, poorly fed, unable to afford sports equipment, are placed adjacent to those with IPhones, mountain bikes, designer jeans, etc.? Well, we know what happens. Stratification. A caste system. The children of the parents that run the town, run the playground. Status is conferred. Status is denied.
   And with it, dignity is conferred and denied. And those who are denied dignity and status drop out; the system, after all, clearly doesn’t belong to them. They will find their status in another “playground” and the children of the elites in Glad will cross this other “playground” at their peril.
   The USA and Singapore are by far the most “income-unequal” countries in the world according to the sociological markers Pickett and Wilkinson are using. Japan comes close to being the most egalitarian in this regard. The homicide rate in the USA is 62 per million population annually; in Japan, the corresponding number is 3. Canada rests at 17. Now there’s obviously more than inequality involved here, but there’s no disputing that inequality contributes mightily to social illness when looked at statistically.
   What’s most alarming is that the gaps are growing. No, actually, that comes second. The most alarming is that we don’t have politicians smart enough to understand which is cause here and which is effect. How thick do you have to be to meet the problem of social illness by building more jails!
   There is no substitute for the fair distribution of resources that the earth provides for its citizens. There are groups and individuals, of course, who work at plucking individuals from the morass of illness that predominates in the underprivileged classes and settling them on a higher, safer plane. Applaud them for attempting to help in the only way they know how, but urge them to know that their efforts don’t deal with the cause of the illness itself, and may in fact be perpetuating it.
   I finish with a gem from Fay Wattleton quoted in The Spirit Level: “Just saying ‘No’ prevents teenage pregnancy [in the same way] as ‘Have a nice day’ cures chronic depression.” (p.119)

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