Inequality vs poverty: moving upstream

In his closing essay for his April 2, 2010 JOURNAL, Bill Moyers references several works on inequality in America. Among these is THE SPIRIT LEVEL: WHY GREATER EQUALITY MAKES SOCIETIES STRONGER by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, who together have spent more than 50 years studying how inequality affects the health of a population.

As I read Bill Moyers’ interview about the social consequences of inequality, I was struck by how much inequality is, in its essence, about RELATIONSHIP, whereas poverty is about “the condition of poor people” (“us” or “them”).

Inequality characterizes culturally and systemically embedded relationships and because of its systemic nature generates many social ills (as described in the Moyers interview) — among them “poverty”. (Along with many others, I see “poverty” as more than low income. It is a mix of low status and inability to meet basic needs. Societies of all low income people who can meet their basic needs together — such as many subsistence communities prior to Westernization — are not, in this sense, “impoverished”.)

The fact that so many social ills correlate more to inequality than to poverty — as Wilkinson and Pickett explain (I highly recommend the interview, linked above) — suggests that inequality is “upstream” (i.e., a more basic cause of suffering) and therefore more worthy of activist attention. This, despite the fact that “poverty” is what captures our attention and biology-based compassion.  (See “Does Compassion Need to Evolve?”

We need to move our attention upstream as much as possible.  If cultures and social systems cause the suffering and destruction we see, and we don’t transform those cultural and systemic factors, the suffering and destruction we deplore will only multiply until we have no more resources to address either them or their causes.  On the other hand, if we can free our compassion to focus on the causative cultural and systemic factors, the suffering and destruction will decrease and we’ll find ourselves living in a world that increasingly makes sense.

I’m currently helping Frances Moore Lappe spread some of her recent ideas, which are also about activists and citizens moving their attention upstream — from suffering to injustice to lack of democracy to money-blinded economics to the assumptions that underlie both our systems and our sense of what’s possible. (See her GETTING A GRIP 2 for example

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