The answer is pretty simple, actually: the inequality gap in our country is massive, and it is bad for the health of all of us – whether rich or poor. The inequality is grotesque. In the US, the founding family of Walmart, the Waltons, have wealth equal to 42% of US residents. Globally, just eight men own the same wealth as the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people.
Oxfam has produced an index that ranks 152 governments on their commitment to reducing inequality. While Sweden tops the ranking, the US flails at number 23. Nigeria is last. And here’s their critical observation: it is impossible to effectively address poverty unless countries tackle their extreme economic inequality. The reason is obvious. If a great deal of a nation’s wealth is heaped up with a few people, and there is little political will to prevent the heaping or distribute the heap for the common good, then resources are not available to help the poor or maintain essential elements of society’s common good.
Severe inequality is linked to a sobering array of consequences: poorer health; increased violence including gun violence, domestic violence and civil conflict; aggravation of racial and gender disparities; lower economic growth; greater political inequality as the wealthy increase their influence; greater inequality of opportunity; and stifled social mobility. Given all this, one can readily appreciate the corrosive and destabilizing impact of severe economic inequality on the very social fabric of a society. We need only think for a minute about the current situation in the US, and the policy proposals to make the situation much worse.
As WPSR grapples right now with the question of what initiatives we should undertake for this program (considering our participation in two successful campaigns over the last two years: Seattle’s $15 minimum wage and passage by the WA legislature of the new paid family leave act), we are guided by the results of the critical Oxfam research used in developing their inequality index. They found three policy areas where government actions have played a key part in reducing the gap between the rich and the poor. These are:
1. Broad social spending on public services such as education, public health, social protection (safety net), etc.
2. Progressive taxation, where the richest individuals and corporations are taxed more in order to redistribute resources and ensure the funding of public services, including for people with the greatest needs (social ethics 101).
3. Higher wages for ordinary workers and stronger labor rights, especially for women. This includes raising the wage floor but also protecting the rights of unions to organize.
As we develop our new strategic plan for this program, we will pay close attention to these three policy areas, as they pertain to Washington State. Our newly expanded inequality task force will advise our board on initiatives that are relevant and achievable, as well as engaging for our members and leaders. We will again likely find ourselves participating in coalitions in order to successfully address complex issues (think progressive taxation in Washington). As some wise wag said: “Progressive government has been the greatest invention ever in improving human life and creating equality.”
Please stay tuned for further developments on this program. We welcome your ideas as well as your participation.
P.S. Please save the date for March 3rd, 2018, in Seattle. Our annual WPSR dinner will focus on the critical issue of economic inequality and how the healthcare sector can work to address it.
Bruce Amundson, MD