The Ways Economic Inequality is Making Us Sick

Last week I was on my way to a meeting while listening to my favorite show on public radio. I arrived at my location, parked and just as I was going to get out of the car, I heard the commentator discuss how economic inequality was making the world sick. I didn’t have time to listen to the special report, but the topic stayed in my thoughts for the remainder of the day.

So I began thinking about this and now have more questions than I started with that morning.  This is what I found so far.

Looking at economic inequality measured by those who live on $1 to 2 dollars a day and those in developed nations shows us a few things.  Economic inequality leads to a lack of access to things we, in the developed world, consider basic.  This includes food, healthcare, housing, and water among other necessities.  At this level, we are not talking about quality food, safe and appropriate housing or purified water. Here we are discussing just the availability to the individual.

Because of this lack of access, diseases that have been eradicated or at least controlled in other parts of the world can kill. These include malaria, dengue fever and the sleeping sickness. The lack of access also leads to malnutrition, especially among children under the age of 5.

The poor quality of these also affects individuals. Unsanitary water, spoiled food and inadequate and mosquito filled shelter, aggravates the situation. This causes child mortality rates to be high. Lack of appropriate healthcare also leads to high death rates among expectant mothers leading to additional societal issues like that of orphaned children. The lack of economic means here is a matter of life or death.

For many of us, the economic and social disparities between the developed and developing countries or as traditionally it’s been coined the global north and south, seems far away from our local communities and realities. Many think that it is something that happens “over there” and not to us.

But this situation can also be seen closer to home. Those who need assistance from the federal government welfare system can access products or services, but are these quality ones? We have become a society conscious of pesticides on our food and chemicals in our products. We have commercials on television about high corn fructose syrup and eating “cleaner” food, yet we provide those with the most needs the least nutritious food which also happens to be the most inexpensive.

Studies show that obesity, diabetes and other preventable yet deadly diseases are rampant in the United States.  These also show that the rates of these illnesses are higher amongst the poor. That is because the foods consumed tend to be higher in calories, fats, sugars and preservatives. Yet, we give to people enough to survive but not to thrive.

But whose responsibility is this? Is it our responsibility to just provide enough to live or to also provide the same high quality products to all? Is it the responsibility of the individuals to make the best choices within the situation they are in? It is a difficult debate, especially when these diseases are preventable, when they cost more to treat and when they ultimately shorten people’s lifespan.

Financial inequality is making people sick for various reasons.  It perpetuates a lack of access to food, of quality products, and education on how to pick among those options and what to do with them. Financial inequality takes away a person’s freedom of choice and of crucial decision-making about the type the lives they live. Financial inequality is ultimately harming our world, our country and our communities.

What do you think? How do we start to address this?

Regina Bernadin is a doctoral student at Nova Southeastern University focusing on Conflict Analysis and Resolution. As a SISGI intern, her primary areas of interest are conflict resolution, human rights and Latin American political, economic and socio-cultural issues. Her interest in the development of human rights abroad has taken her to several Latin American countries, including Colombia, Ecuador and Suriname.

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