The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die by Keith Payne
Viking, 256 pp.
Economists are showering us with alarming statistics about income inequality. The top 10% of Americans hold 76% of the nation’s wealth; the richest 85 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion. Now Keith Payne, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina comes along with an important and disturbing book to tell us how inequality is affecting Americans psychologically – and it is not pretty.
Payne, who grew up poor in Kentucky hill country, felt the injuries of class as a child: he recalls being painfully embarrassed when he first realized that his classmates were paying for their school lunches while he was getting his for free. As an adult, he is helping to create a new “science of inequality," by studying such subjects as the connection between social status and stress (monkeys with higher rank in their troop have less bodily stress) and income inequality and life expectancy (nations and U.S. states with more inequality have shorter lifespans).
It is sobering stuff, and it should make us think about the hidden costs of growing income inequality -- and about the messages society is sending to people about where they fit in. What matters psychologically, Payne argues, is not just people’s objective economic situation, but how they perceive their place on the “status ladder” – and he’s got evidence to back it up. “If you place yourself on a lower rung, then you are more likely in the coming years to suffer from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain,” he writes. “The lower rung you select, the more prone you are to weight issues, diabetes, and heart problems. The lower the rung you select, the fewer years you have left to live.”