Americans are obsessed with independence, a concept that, to some, connotes freedom, liberty and justice for all, and the right to privatize most aspects of our lives. In our capitalist economy, we hand the keys over to CEOs in corner offices, and vehemently defend the liberties afforded to this 1% because heck, one day, if we work hard enough, maybe we’ll be able to summit that socioeconomic hierarchy. The irony resides in the fact that we are unavoidably the byproduct of this hierarchy, despite our “independence” which we so proudly and fervently brandish. By promoting political and economic “freedom”, we condemn ourselves to live in a society with astounding income inequality, tragically low social capital, and the consequent, stress-associated health risks that accompany these issues (Sapolsky 2004, Ch. 17).
Let’s hop down from that soap box and take a closer look at what’s going on. In the United States, 40% of the overall wealth is controlled by 1% of the population, resulting in a very small, but very rich subset of individuals, while most working-class Americans are somewhere between the lower- and middle-income brackets, with annual earnings of $9,300-96,500 (Pew Research Center). This income inequality yields a substantial amount of severe poverty which is unequivocally linked to significantly greater amounts of chronic stress and an increased risk of psychological and physiological disease (review: Sapolsky 2004, pg. 366, 376).
Like low socioeconomic status, feeling poor can also serve as a reliable predictor of bad health, as it may reflect facets of an individual’s personality that can translate to a negative outlook and less effective coping in the face of chronic stress. In addition, feeling poor may reflect reduced access to social capital which often accompanies income inequality; rather than contributing a fraction of their abundant wealth to bettering the existing community by improving infrastructure, public schools, housing and healthcare, the wealthy have the option of building gated communities, further sequestering their wealth and isolating themselves from individuals who are different (Trawalter et al. 2012). It is important to note that income inequality and low social capital predict high crime rates better than poverty or the racial composition of a community. Unfortunately, xenophobia and the convenience of stereotyping often contribute to inappropriate law enforcement, which can further increase allostatic load and may contribute to chronic stress-associated health problems in racial minorities (Major et al. 2013, Lucas et al. 2017).
The sequestration of wealth and of the wealthy discourages the development of diverse communities, fuels stereotyping and prejudice, and, in poor communities, can promote chronic stress and an increased risk of stress-associated diseases and disorders. With minimal means to improve their communities, individuals living in poverty have limited access to social resources that might encourage a better outlook or promote upward socioeconomic mobility away from stressors that undermine healthy living (Sapolsky 2004, pg. 378-383). The segregation of communities based on socioeconomic status is a driving force that cleaves low- and high-income brackets apart, rendering the middle class obsolete. While there is no easy fix to this ongoing problem, we should be looking to other countries to see how aspects of different economic and political models might be implemented to reduce income inequality and increase social capital. In sum, economic freedom indirectly strips American citizens of their social freedom, and we may need to roll back some economic freedoms to grow as a unified society.