Health & Wealth: Why Care About Income Inequality?

Income InequalityRecently, two snippets of conversations that I came across in online social communities caught my attention in an unexpected way.  The two tidbits were: (1) a short phrase referring to obesity as one of the “diseases of affluence”; and (2) a separate unrelated comment mentioning that a video about income inequality in the U.S. didn’t offer any recommendations about what to do about it.

Individually, those two general topics are nothing new.  However, somehow the thought that came to me, that there could actually be a direct connection between the two, that was sort of new to me.  Could our country’s current-day economic weaknesses, particularly decline’s in our country’s overall physical health, be directly tied to a more and more extreme wealth concentration among a tiny few at the top?

Wealth Inequality Is More Real Than We Believe

As background, according to a New Economics Institution video, in the U.S., there is a considerable disparity between our ideal and our perceptions about wealth distribution in our country, and the actual reality of it.  The reality is that: “The top 1% of Americans have more of the country’s wealth than 9 out of 10 American’s believe the entire top 20% should have.”

So, as with most facts like that, though interesting, that would have been where the story ended for me. There was no “so what?” That was until a few days later when I saw those same facts referenced again on a cable television political talk show.  So, I watched to see if that coverage of those same survey results would be expanded upon.  I became re-engaged when I saw that they were.

The Rachel Maddow Show covered that same video and added some interesting insights with the help of two guests: Nobel Prize-Winning Economist, Joseph E. Stiglitz, and New York Magazine Writer-At-Large, Frank Rich.  The most interesting ten minutes of the interview, I’ve clipped for you below (or use this link starting at time marker 8:01):

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The interesting comment at the end of this clip is agreement among both guests that the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the Tea Party Movement, though seemingly at odds with each other, are actually fueled by the same anger over the this issue of income inequality in the U.S.  Unfortunately, neither movement is achieving much in their respective approaches.

Disease of Affluence

Here is where the “diseases of affluence” part comes in for me.  First, I should clarify that I learned that this term is not so much the difference between rich and poor within a society, but is more about those difference between economically developed and less-developed (or third world) countries.

To clarify further, obesity is considered a “disease of affluence”, due to the sedentary lifestyle brought about by technological advances as well as the convenience and availability of low-cost foods among other things, as opposed to the poor living conditions and inadequate access to proper health care associated with impoverished nations.

While health in developed nations like the U.S. certainly has a large personal responsibility component to it, there are also factors and influences that affect the options available to us (and the conditions we live in) that businesses and government institutions certainly share are large role in shaping as well.

So, if business and government policies and practices are influenced by where the concentration of wealth (and power associated with that wealth) lies, then it is not so much the income inequality itself that is the concern, but more the concentration of power resulting from that wealth that we need to be concerned with.

Where the Concentration of Power Lies

An interesting point to consider is this quote from a New York Times review about Stiglitz’s book “The Price of Inequality:

“…concentrated economic power converts into political power…

Stiglitz and his allies argue that …. without constraint, dominant interests use their leverage to make gains at the expense of the majority….

The importance of Stiglitz’s contribution (and that of other dissidents) to the public debate cannot be overestimated. The news media and the Congress are ill-equipped to address the role of economic power in shaping policy. Both institutions are, in fact, unaware of the extent to which they themselves are subject to the influence of money.”

We need to better understand “the role of economic power in shaping policy.”   If there is an unchecked economic power held by a tiny portion of the population, especially if the influence of that power affects the majority of the population, then the impact of that influence needs to be understood.

Maybe it’s not so much about taking money away from the wealthiest 1% as it is about diminishing the power that having that money has given them to influence self-servicing policies and regulatory efforts at the expense of the country’s overall wellbeing?

So what do you think?

  • Does an unbridled concentration of power, associated with the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny percent of the population, really exist?
  • Is that concentration of wealth power putting the very entities that hold that power at an advantage at the expense of the rest of the country?
  • Would our country’s physical health be improved if the income/wealth inequality were lessened?  
  • If so, how long would it take for such a re-balancing of power to be achieved?
  • Am I even asking the right questions here?

I look forward to reading any and all thoughts that you feel comfortable sharing in the comment section below.  Thanks in advance!


Photo Credit:  title=”Income Inequality” by mSeattle, on Flickr


  1. Very interesting. I have never thought much about the link between the two. I suspect that the wealthiest are also the healthiest, having access to education that leads to better food choices. Certainly, the wealthy are not the obese.

    It is the relative affluence of a nation that allows its citizens the luxury of obesity. Fast food is cheaper than gourmet cooking, but is still not cheap – it is only the relative wealth of the nation as a whole that makes unhealthy eating possible.

    But whatever, it is always good to be asking these questions as it is this that inspires the creative processes that may lead to solutions. And solutions are needed, that much is very clear!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Neil! Yes, I certainly don’t want to oversimplify the cause or the solution to the obesity issue. Clearly obesity involves lifestyle conditions and personal choices, yet I was thinking more in the sense of who funds and profits from the lobbying and the marketing messages which also play a role in shaping our environment and influencing our decisions (and the wealth and related power connection there). Either way, I agree that solutions begin with asking questions. Thanks for taking the time to read this post and adding your thoughts!

  2. Yes, but put yourself in the place of a rich peosrn. There you are in 2002 with five million bucks, living a mere shadow of a rich peosrn’s life. You have a mortgage on your NYC penthouse, you rent in the Hamptons, and you don’t even fly first class!Then, in 2007, you have three million more bucks to throw around, have already paid off a big chunk of your mortgage, and started flying first class. Life looks sweet and things will only get better. So you buy a place in the Hamptons. You buy another car. You splurge on clothes, flatscreens, private yoga classes, and designer clothes. You start to buy real art, not just lithos or copies.Then..Boom! 2007 and you’ve just nearly two million dollars! You are struggling on your Hamptons mortgage. You are back to flying to Gstaad in business class. And your daughter Britney’s 16th won’t be at Le Cirque after all.So, pity the rich. The poor and the middle class had little or nothing to lose so they didn’t miss it anyway. But the rich? What a shock to the system to lose millions!

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