Inequality may be hazardous to your health

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Joe was staying with is mother, but she started drinking again. To protect his own sobriety, he is sleeping in his truck.

Melissa's children have just lost their health insurance again. Every few months, the state plan for children in poverty suspends the family for failure to produce documents. Actually, the system keeps losing paperwork Melissa has already filed. It gets resolved eventually, but there's never a record of the problem or action to fix it permanently. She's terrified that one of the kids will get sick during a coverage lapse.

Carol was already behind in her rent when she lost her job. The kids had written their letters to Santa weeks earlier. Carol feels like a bad mother when she thinks of a tree with nothing under it Christmas morning. She may take out a payday loan to buy the children presents - even though that means her financial stress will get much worse.

That's what it's like to be poor. You face situations where there are no good choices. You struggle with systems supposedly designed to help you that won't even listen to you. You see that your children are cut off from simple joys that most families take for granted.

It's not just the deprivation, though that is unquestionably damaging. It's also knowing that you rank at the bottom and knowing that's how things were designed to be.

It has long been established that poor people do not live as long as rich ones. That gap is widening. In 2010, the average life expectancy for a wealthy American male was 88.8 years. A poor man could expect to live only 76.1 years. In women, the wealth/life gap was 91.9 versus 78.3 years. On the one hand, it's shocking that people lose more than a decade of life because of their economic circumstances. But experts haven't found it terribly surprising. After all, poor people have less access to health care and quality food. They live in communities full of environmental hazards, violence and poor opportunities for exercise. The list of unavoidable health-robbing factors is long, though a fair number of scientists blame the poor for their lot, because low-income people are more likely to smoke and engage in other unhealthy behavior.

But new research suggests that low social status can damage the immune system. Researchers at Duke University rearranged groups of monkeys to alter which ones were on top of the social order. Monkeys placed at the bottom of the social order became chronically stressed. Blood tests showed that their immune systems altered, causing high levels of inflammation and risk of disease. The immune changes, however, were reversed when those same monkeys were introduced into a pack where they were dominant.

Keep in mind - only the social order changed. Low and high status monkeys lived in the same environment, ate the same food, and so on.

It's stressful to be at the bottom; and that alone can kill you. As scientist Graham Rock told the BBC:

It is something governments just don't understand; they think people at the bottom have got cars, have got TVs, so compared with people in India they're enormously wealthy. But that really isn't the point, they feel they are at the bottom of the heap.

This dovetails nicely with "happiness research" that shows inequality - distinct from poverty - contributes to unhappiness. A 2011 study noted that the average American household had twice as much wealth then as it did in 1962. The researchers found that in that half-century Americans rated themselves as happier at times when there was more relative equality in the economy.

I suspect that some of us will always have more than others. But the gap between rich and poor has grown so wide in the U.S. that it is striking, and I would argue unsustainable. We need to close that gap in a way that recognizes the dignity of everyone. Lives depend upon it.