By Carol Goar, Toronto Star, December 17, 2010
(Ms. Goar's story focuses on the research by Richard Wilkinson, British epidemiologist, into the relationship between poverty, sickness and death)
In societies with wide disparities in wealth, the poor did have a disproportionately high rate of morbidity. But in societies with a more even distribution of assets, the pattern faded.
Could inequality be the culprit, then? This time, the dots connected. No matter where Wilkinson looked, those who ranked lowest in the socio-economic hierarchy experienced more health problems than people above them.
For a while, the British researcher was satisfied. He wrote a string of publications documenting the psycho-social causes of poor health.
Then his curiosity reasserted itself. If inequality explained why some people were sicker than others, could it also explain why some societies had elevated rates of drug abuse, violence, illiteracy and teen pregnancy?
He examined the evidence, comparing equitable jurisdictions to those with sharply differentiated “haves” and “have nots.”
He found that the wider the gap between rich and poor:
• The higher the incidence of drug addiction.
• The higher the dropout rate.
• The higher the concentration of adolescent gangs.
• The higher the prison population.
• The higher the rate of teen pregnancy.
“How could I have been so slow to pull it together?” he asked. “It is surprising someone didn’t write this book 20 year ago.”
The book to which he was referring is The Spirit Level — Why Equality is Better for Everyone. (Its title confuses North Americans. In Britain, a spirit level is a familiar construction tool used to measure the flatness of a surface.)
Listen to the people who have nothing, and they will tell you they are living lives of desperation. Of course! Why did no no one write this research twenty years ago? So many times, we find that research confirms what our grandparents told us, yet we did not want to believe and were not willing to admit the truth, unless and until it hit us over the head "with the proverbial 2 x 4," another of those timbers used in carpentry, like the spirit level.
And many have been seduced by the street mantra "let them pick themselves up by their own bootstraps just like I had to"...as a way of denying social assistance, extended unemployment benefits, guaranteed annual income, welfare, government bursaries for education (that do not need to be paid back) and we have created a monster myth about the virtues of the corporation, and the corporate culture and the wealthy...in our own madness, a madness based on denial of the reality that the disdain and the indifference and the contempt we demonstrate to our very "least" continues to bite us in the ass, with increased costs of crime detection, and security intelligence, and increased health costs and increase "national security".
We are trying to protect ourselves as much from our own denial of the reality of social compassion and community within the body politic as from any threat from some cavemen in the Af-Pak mountains.
And we need to look in the mirror, and reflect on what we already know...that when the society truly cares about its indigent and about its diseased and about its troubled hearts, bodies and minds, that very care in real and measureable terms lifts the spirits of all, both the compassionate and the recipients.
It is no accident that the very word "care" comes from the original word "kara" meaning "lament".
As Henri Nouwen reminds us, "The basic meaning of care is to grieve, to experience sorrow, to cry out with." (From Henri Nouwen, Seeds of Hope, p. 129)
Nouwen mentions this in the context of how the world usually sees "care". We tend to look at caring as an attitude of the strong toward the weak, of the powerful toward he powerless, of the haves toward the have-nots....Still when we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in a hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.(Nouwen, p.129)
When the society can see and take action from a similar spirit, and not from a spirit of disdain and contempt, imagine the metanoia that results in everyone, not even to mention the change in the account books of that society. Which of us would not want to live and work and play with a body politic that operates from that perspective?