Posts Tagged ‘Economic inequality’

Chapters 11 and 12 of the Spirit level conclude part II which focuses on the costs of inequality.   Not surprisingly the authors argue a  a correlation between imprisonment and inequality.  Their research extends from the prisons themselves to the public opinion about prisons.  

1.  Criminologists, Blumstein and Beck have examined the growth of US prison populations.  Only 12 percent of the growth in state prisoners between 1980 and 1996 could be put down to increases in criminal offending…The other 88 percent of increased imprisonment was due to the increasing likelihood that convicted criminals were sent to prison rather than being given non-custodial sentences.  (147)

2.  More unequal states are likely to retain the death penalty.

3.  Prisoner treatment is more human in countries with greater equality.  In the Netherlands, a grouop of lawyers, criminologists and psychiatrists came together to influence the prison system and were committed that offenders must be treated as fellow human beings who are capable of responding to insights and treatments.  (151).  The communal and optimistic prisons of Japan are compared to the supermax prisons of the US where criminals are put in isolation, “which has been condemned by the United Nations Committee on Torture.” (152)

4.  Imprisonment in unequal countries was often driven by a “growing fear of crime and a loss of confidence in the criminal justice system which made the general public more favorable toward harsh criminal justice policies.” (156)

When in Matthew 25:31-46, God’s people are lauded for their attention to the hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick and imprisoned, sure the church has a responsibility to not just visit but to consider how the prison population accumulates and how we participate in the public attitude about prisoners, punishment,sentencing and a return to society.  Wilkinson and Pickett give us clues for our work and ministry. 

In Chapter 12, the authors argue that income inequality tends to yeild societies with restricted social mobility.  Interesting facts include:

1.  Between 1950 and 1980 – social mobility declined rapidly as income differences widened dramatically. 

2.  Education, often understood as primary means to social mobility, was allocated for more generously (97.8%) out of public funds in more equal countries.  In more unequal countries like the United States, the allocation was closer to (68.2%).

3. Since the 1970s inequality has increased in the USA.  Geographical segregation of the rich and poor has also been on the rise.   Paul Jargowsky cites the US Census data showing that the concentration of poverty increased between 1970-1990.  

How do unequal societies , characterized by geographic segregation of classes and lower social mobility reinforce these trends?  The authors cite the “downward social prejudice” whereby working class people “view their failures to get on in the world as a result of their own inadequacies, resulting in feelings of hostility, resentment and shame.” (165).  In this way, snobbery is cited as a method for restraining people’s opportunity and well-being.   The ripple effect of this may have profound impact upon a society. 

As these downward prejudices increase, individuals who live on the lower rungs of the social ladder displace their aggression to individuals who are yet of even lower status.  “When people react to a provocation from someone with higher status by redictring their aggression to someone of lower status psychologists label it displaced aggression(166).   In the animal kingdoms, displaced aggression is known as the bicycling reaction.  “…the image being conjured up is of someone on a racing bicycle, bowing to their superiors, while kicking down on those beneath.” (168). 

As we pastors study the stories of healing within the New Testament gospels, many of us are aware of that in the ancient world the individual’s human body was symbolic of the larger social body.  Pickett and Wilkerson provide us an application of this theory in their research.  Citing research in the areas of heart disease, low birth weight and schizophrenia, the authors suggest that  intense preoccupation with dominance and social rigidity in unequal socieites may take a great toll on physical health of individuals who choose to strive against  the pressure in order to have greater social mobility.  “…the psychological effects of stigma are sometimes strong enough to override the health benefits of material advantage…”(169). 

Surely the church as an institution known for its class distinctions must reconcile itself to God by diminishing our own culture of inequality (whispers about flip flops and shorts as sanctuary attire) in order to provide a healthier environment in which our parishioners can receive and respond to God’s call upon their lives.


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Chapters 7-10 of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger considers issues of obesity, educational acheivement, teenage pregancy and violence.  In all the cases the authors cite equality as a factor that informs previous and partial explanations.   Below is a snapshot of each chapter.

  1. Obesity: Addressing the epidemic of obesity, the authors invite the readers to consider the matrix of issues involved and to include inequality in the mix.   The World Health Organization performed a study in the 1980s that found obesity has increased as the disparity in the social gradient as increased.  Obesity, as cited in previous chapters of this book is more prevalent among the poor than among the wealthy.  Further they concluded that it “seemed that people in more unequal societies are eating more and exercising less.” (95).   All the the states within the United States have an adult obesity of at least 20 per cent.  Studies in this chapter reveal that despite knowing what produces a healthy body, many people do the contrary.    Knowing that behavioral changes are more possible when we feel positive about our life and have the sense that we can control the changes, Pickett and Wilkinson speculate that lessening inequality could affect the epidemic of obesity.
  2. Education  The drop out rate of children cannot be measured by poverty alone.  “No state has a poverty rate of higher than 17 per cent but drop-out rates are above 20 per cent in sixteen states and dropping out is not confined to the poor.  When unequal situations are revealed in the classrooms, the performance of those in the lower social gradient is affected negatively.  This has been tested internationally in at least the UK, India, and the United States.   Particularly, parental attention and bonding to the children and investment in their education is an indicator of future success.  The more the parents are involved in the first three years of their children’s life and education the more successful the child is likely to be.  Countries that are more equal provide more extended maternity leave (Sweden – 3 months paid and 3 months unpaid).   More unequal countries like the United States provide less (no more than 12 weeks).
  3. Teenage Births  This chapter can be well summarized with the following excerpt from page 121 of the book.  “Teenage birth rates are higher in communities that also have high divorce rates, low levels of trust and low social cohesion, high unemployment, poverty, and high crime rates.  It has been suggested by others that teeange motherhood is a choice that women make when they feel they have no other propsects for achieving the social credentials of adulthood, such as a stable intimate relationship or rewarding employment.  Sociologist, Kristin Luker claims that it is ‘the discouraged disadvantaged’ who become teenage mothers.”   While this is not always the case, this explanation may contribute to a more comprehensive response to the trends.
  4.   Violence  Immediately within this chapter, the authors cite a problem with studies in violence.  Most studies will emphasize an experience with shame or humiliation as a precursor or root to violent behavior.   However, all of us identify with these experiences of shame and humiliation.  “…why is it predominantly among young men that those feelings escalate to violent acts?” (123)   It is as if the authors play connect the dots between significant studies that show violence is not just about poverty but about inequality.  As inequality increases so does violent crime.  When there is less hope that education, material wealth, good employment, esteem from peers will be realized, violence is perceived as an immediate way to maintain respect and honor.

Issues of inequality are at the heart of the Gospel message of the church.  Evidence of inequality could likely be the new mission field of the church in North America.  We know as the church is related to relevant mission, so it is able to experience revitalization.   The history of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) is an intellectual and pragmatic one.  Considering pragmatic responses to the findings recorded in The Spirit Level may be among the most important responses we could make.  Educating pastors which such information and then encouraging pastors to consider calls in areas that are challenged by inequality is one possibility.   Surely financial support and congregational support will be required to transition churches who have not been as active in the social ministry as they would like to have been. 

In my own ministry, some of the greatest rewards have been the times that the church has allowed people of unequal status in the larger culture to co-mingle in the pews.   It is always interesting to me how folks who are unequal in all other places are fast friends, colleagues and mutual cheerleaders in the church.    As contrasting individuals build relationship, there is the experience of what process theology calls harmony.  Harmony is the reconciliation of constrasting events or circumstances.  The degree of the contrast is congruent to the degree of the harmony experienced.   Jesus is remembered for being most interested in reconciliation of contrasts and discovering anew that we are all children equal in the site of Goid.    The church of today still has the potential to live into the Jesus movement of the ancient days.

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Hurricane Katrina opens this chapter as an example of how trust breaks down when there is income inequality.  The authors cite the coverage of New Orleans (a city they note has a great disparity of income) following the disaster “Television news screens showed desperate residents begging for help, for baby food, for medicine, and then switched to images of troops cruising the flooded streets in boats – no evacuting people, not bringing them supplies, but, fully armed with automatic weapons, looking for looters.” (49-50)  Similarly they cite the Chicago heat wave of 1995.  In areas where there was little trust, “…poor African Americans, living in areas with low levels of trust and high levels of crime, were too frightened to open their windows or doors, or leave their homes to go to local cooling centres established by city authorities.  Neighbours did not check on neighbours and hundreds of elderly and vulnerable people died.  In equally poor Hispanic neighbourhoods, characterized by high levels of trust and active community life, the risk of death was much lower.”(57)

According to to the General Social Survey a monitor for social change in the last quarter century, there is disparity between the states.  Among North Dakotans, 67 feel like they can trust others.  17% of Mississippians believe others can be trusted.  International and domestic data is congruent, low levels of trust and high income inequality are related.  The United States of America ranks in the top three countries for high income inequality.  Our company is Singapore and Portugal.

Where there is great income disparity, the status of women is lower and (before rising fuel prices) there was also a rise in the sale of SUV as if to offer some protection as one road down the street.   The authors declare trust to be an important “marker” that equality can contribute to a more cohesive society.

Congregational change and development can learn from the development of nations and states.  Trust hangs in the balance as pastoral leaders do their part to develop the program/ministry and relational infrastructure of the congregation.  Too often trust is eroded because church redevelopment efforts are not as intentional about relationships as they are about programmatic initiatives.   When church members are stratified and there is a unequal value put on their opinions, feedback and overall worth, the congregation itself begins to be an unequal environment.  Even as pastors must understand and respect people contextually,we must avoid any temtpation to stratify membership.  As one body of Christ, the whole messages through its individual members.   Our inclination to listen to those members who praise us and ignore those who criticize us may run contrary to the Spirit who invites us all forward.  The healthy congregational leader willdo well to receive all congregational messages without prejudice so that they might settle in like puzzle pieces into the heart and mind of the leader who is the holding environment (Ronald Heifitz) for the effects of congregational change. Pastoral leaders may be primary guardians of equality within their congregation.  The difference it will make will be the extent to which the congregation can rely upon and collaborate with one another in order to exercise the gospel in the world.

*The authors quote Alexis de Tocqueville “Prejudice is an imaginary inequality which is follows the real inequality produced by wealth and law” (pg. 400 of Democracy In America)

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