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Economic inequality is a major theme in the American political dialogue. As the country’s wealthiest people continually become richer at the expense of the poor, some research suggests they may actually become less happy and healthy. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on the nuanced data and the challenges of evaluating a society’s well-being.
Anger over economic inequality and its effects is an important theme running through our national politics in both parties now.
But just how you gauge the true impacts of inequality on health and happiness is a bit more nuanced than you might think.
Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, dives into some of those distinctions. It's part of our weekly segment, Making Sense.
As a record number of private jets descended on Davos last month for the World Economic Forum, the anti-poverty nonprofit Oxfam released its annual inequality statistics.
According to Oxfam, the 26 richest people on Earth, just over the seating capacity of the Bombardier 7500, have the same net worth as the poorest half of the world's population, some 3.8 billion people.
But a major discovery of medical research in recent years has been that inequality doesn't just weigh on those below.
The biggest effects are on the poor, but the vast majority of the population does less well if they're in a more unequal society.
Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett document this claim in their latest book, "The Inner Level."
Yes, economic growth drives greater contentment, happiness, but only to a point.
In the rich, developed world, economic growth is no longer buying us gains in health and happiness.
And so, as poor countries get richer…
Things get better.
And then, if you have inequality or increasing inequality in that country, then you're going…
You will not be doing as well as the other rich countries.
It's the difference between the U.S. and Scandinavia, says Pickett.
If you and I have equal education, the same incomes, the same wealth, the same social class, if you live in a more equal society than I do, you are more likely to live longer, your children to be healthier, less likely to do drugs or drop out of school. Everything about your world is going to be better
Consider mental illness, which Pickett and Wilkinson first linked to inequality a decade ago.
Since then, I think we're seeing an epidemic of mental illness in the most unequal rich, developed countries, about 80 percent of our young people feeling incredibly stressed, many of them suicidal, many of them hurting themselves.
And, of course, it's not just the young, says Pickett's husband.
In Britain, three-quarters of the population feel overwhelmed by stress and unable to cope.
This is a large sample?
Yes, yes, from the Mental Health Foundation. A third of the population have had suicidal thoughts in the last year. And the figures in the U.S. are pretty similar. About 20 percent of your population have diagnosable mental illness at any one time.
How does it work?
So we judge each other more by status in a more unequal society. And with that goes more worries about how we are seen and judged.
The effects are biggest among the poor. But they go right across to the top 10th, 10 percent of the income distribution. It affects our physiology, our hormones, the way we think, the way we behave. And those changes have been linked to a range of mental illnesses that we know are related to income inequality.
According to GoodRx.com, depression and anxiety prescriptions are on the rise in the U.S., and they track income very closely.
Even when you're taking an antidepressant, you may still be struggling with depression.
Of course, richer people can afford more antidepressants and the like. But the well-off sure do consume a lot of them. And if depression isn't the functional definition of unhappiness, what is?
After all, I asked economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, doesn't everyone know that more money doesn't make you happier?
You hear it everywhere. After about $70,000 a year of household income — maybe it's a little more in San Francisco or something — people are no happier making more than that than the people who make that amount. True? No?
It's a truism, but it's false.
Wolfers cautions that Wilkinson and Pickett have taken the inequality argument too far.
Rich people are happier than poor people, and that's true all the way along the income distribution. People earning half-a-million are happier than those earning a quarter-of-a-million, happier than people earning $100,000, happier than people earning $50,000, all the way.
Now, wait a minute. What about 40 years worth of happiness research on lottery winners, going back to a widely trumpeted 1978 study?
So that original study was a study of, I think, 30 lottery winners.
Actually, just 22 lottery winners. But a much more recent study tracked hundreds of lottery winners in Sweden.
It turns out that folks who won big lotteries are much happier than folks who won smaller lotteries, are much happier than folks who won no lottery whatsoever.
Just as their cats may be, as this Swedish lottery ad suggests.
So it turns out, big bump in income, big bump in happiness.
The Pickett-Wilkinson response? Don't put too much stock into self-rated health and happiness reports.
So the United States has a very high level of good self-rated health. About 80 percent of Americans say their health is great. But their life expectancy is at the bottom of the international league table among the developed countries.
Now, Japan, which has the highest life expectancy in the world, people live there longer than anywhere else, only about half of them think their health is good. So there's a complete mismatch between subjective and objective measures when it comes to health.
So you have to be very careful with that data.
So when people report greater subjective happiness as a function of having greater wealth, are they kidding themselves?
No, they're not kidding themselves, but we find that these things are related to inequality. So you're much more likely to say that you are fabulous if you live in a more unequal society.
So, do you think you're a better driver than most Americans?
I actually think I'm worse.
Do you think your I.Q. is higher? Do you think you're more attractive? Do you think you're more generous?
So, you think that the reason that — I can't remember the percentage, but 70, 80 percent of Americans think that they're, I think, much better than average drivers…
Ninety-six percent think they're better than average. OK.
In Sweden, it's 66 percent. That is strongly linked to income inequality.
In the end, though, while the two couples disagree about the effects of wealth on happiness, they're on the same page regarding inequality. That's because, says Betsey Stevenson:
Increases in income keep making you happier, but they're making you happier at a decreasing rate. It's just that that rate never goes to zero.
: I see.
And that's an idea of diminishing returns, right? If I'm looking at a millionaire, to get the same boost in happiness for them, I'm going to need a lot more dollars than for somebody who is pretty low-income, because the relationship is with a percentage change.
In other words, say these liberal economists, you can give one millionaire 10 percent more money to make him or her 10 percent happier, or you can divvy up that $100,000 among lower-income people to make each of them 10 percent happier.
Paul, you may have just found the logic of redistribution, right? Take someone from a million to 1.1, take that $100,000 and find 20 people on $50,000, move them from $50,000, to 55,000, you have made 20 people get the same boost in happiness.
So, we have sacrificed one person with one decrease in happiness that's been offset by an increase in happiness that's 20 times the size.
And if redistribution doesn't happen and inequality continues to grow?
If that whole society becomes very unequal, happiness and measures of well-being will decline.
And that's the essence of what you're saying?
For the "PBS NewsHour," this is economics correspondent Paul Solman.
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Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
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