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How Inequality Harms the 1%

The ultimate health and well-being of the wealthiest among us also depends on the creation of a more egalitarian society

July 28, 2020  |  Solidarity Will Save Us


Over the past 40 years, economic inequality has skyrocketed. Three men own more wealth than half the U.S. population. Nearly every member of this half could not come up with $400 to handle an emergency. 140 million people in this country are poor or low-income and millions more are experiencing ever-greater economic insecurity as costs of housing, higher education, and healthcare grow exponentially amidst decades of stagnant wages. The rampant job loss happening during the pandemic intensifies this hardship even further. 


Inequality in the U.S. also takes an incredible toll on the health of our people – most intensely on those struggling to get by, but also, in clear, measurable ways, on the wealthiest among us. In the Fall of 2012, during my final year of college, I attended a campus talk by a man named Richard Wilkinson who spoke about his recent book, The Spirit Level. He outlined how, even when comparing rich democracies, countries with more economic equality among their citizenry had far better public health outcomes across the board when compared with those with high levels of inequality. The wealthiest segments of society in Scandinavia for example do fewer drugs, have better fitness, feel a greater sense of community, have a superior work-life balance, and experience better mental health, than do the richest portions of the US population. 


Three years later, in 2015, I came across a lengthy article in the Atlantic called The Silicon Valley Suicides. The article struck me so much that I still have the magazine on my shelf. It describes how “a culture of affluence” is killing young people in one of the wealthiest regions in the country. A cutthroat corporate environment makes parents less present in their kids’ lives. An obsessive, hyper-competitive focus on academic and extracurricular achievement along with elite college admission pushes 1 in 10 Palo Alto high-school students to contemplate taking their own life in a given year. And after one death happens, “a cluster” of others often quickly follow as other students begin to see suicide as an option for them.


In 2017, I worked for a short time as a substitute teacher at an elite private middle school in the Bay Area. One day, I was given the job of teaching 7th and 8th grade math. The lesson plans were short and in each of the 5 classes I taught that day there was time left over at the end. I decided to close each class by having students analyze some statistics from the article. By drawing a graph on the whiteboard, I showed them that in the US as a whole, mental illness among youth exists on a U-shaped curve as it relates to social class. On each end of the economic spectrum, poor kids and rich kids are experiencing high levels of mental suffering. 


As we discussed results, it seemed obvious to these young people that the stresses of poverty would create greater levels of depression and anxiety. But when I posed the question, “Why are these wealthy kids struggling with this so much?” they first were quiet, sitting in reflection, and then they began to share many of the same root causes as those described in the article — always feeling like you’re on your own, never feeling like you can make a mistake, and never feeling like you will live up to expectations.  


As each class closed, I asked, “What can we do to solve this and bring everyone to a higher level of mental health?” These students, many from wealthy families themselves, responded first with the major need to distribute money more evenly. They also spoke to the need for values to shift, saying, “we can’t be so competitive,” and “we all need to share and care for each other more.”


This newsletter, Solidarity Will Save Us, is meant to illustrate how all of our well-being is interdependent, and how when we can use this as an organizing principle, our social movements will be unstoppable. Multiple past issues have described how racism has consistently been weaponized by the powerful as a tool to divide and weaken the 99%. A recent mailing spoke about how, in our society of runaway inequality, those of us with middle class backgrounds must realize that we are far closer to life in poverty than we are to a life of luxury and wealth (and that we’d better vote like it). 


This issue touches on a manifestation of this principle of interdependence that is perhaps least talked about — that the ultimate well-being of the richest elements of our society depends on the economic security of those who are most kicked to the curb. It depends on a culture where, above all, we care for one another. The owning class and most elite professional classes will likely never be brought willingly, as an entire group, toward the project of mass wealth redistribution. But what if our movements still named, loudly, that their well-being too is deeply tied to all of ours? That even the masters of industry, those button-pushers quarantined away in their mansions, have a fate tied to our own? If our movements could internalize this truth, might that deal a more powerful, revolutionary blow to our exploitative, capitalist economy? I think so. 

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