We smelled the house before we reached it, a terrible stench of human waste and illness. The green, eight foot square house stood on tilted brick stilts. Rotten debris was piled under the base, and a thin, limping gray kitten crawled among some trash.
The elderly woman my Appalachian friend Rosie took us to see was leaning against the decaying doorway, holding herself against the frame with her hands. Her skin was almost as white as her hair and her large orange-brown freckles lay across her nose and under her eyes. She smiled at us, but her eyes looked confused and wary. A skinny blond boy of about nine stood watching us just outside the door. Rosie looked at the boy. “It’s OK. We’ve brought food and have just come visiting.” He smiled.
It seemed as if our speaking to the woman made her more at ease, and she sank away from the door, holding onto a walker, and eased down into a hard chair in the corner of her shelter. We took it as a invitation and stepped up and inside the door. I looked around and saw the old chair she was sitting on, a single bed with soiled blankets, a small wood heater, and a table with an empty can of peaches. There was no toilet inside the house, and a pan of dirty water sat against the wall. Rosie put her food on the table. There’s enough for the boy too.”
We stood with them a little longer, then Rosie said, “We’ll say goodbye and let you eat now.”
We left the old woman sitting quietly in the corner of the room, but the boy waved at us from the doorway. As we walked away from the door, the smell of honeysuckle replaced the scent of decay. I contacted a nun in public health and told her about the starving woman and child. The nun assured me that they would be given services and looked after.
We live in an acutely unequal country. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickette, in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Us Stronger, 2009, explain the inequality in the U.S. is the greatest in the developed world. People in more equal countries–such as Japan and the Scandinavian nations–live longer, are happier, trust in others more deeply, have less mental illness, are less obese, and have other measurements of well being. This is not just for the poor in their societies but the middle class and wealthy also.
Wilkinson and Pickett are epidemiologists who have studied international rates of inequality and corresponding health data, such as the murder rate, rate of teenage pregnancy, and the amount of drug and alcohol abuse. The nations who have the lowest level of pathology among all their population have one quality in common. They all allocate their wealth more equally across social classes.
In reviewing the book, Sam Pizzigati (Sam, August 3, 2009) states: “The wider the economic gaps between us, . . . the more social status matters. The more social status matters, the more likely we will be to feel shame and humiliation. The more stress these emotions evoke in us, the weaker we get.” And stress wears us down. It’s not just the poor. Middle class and wealthy people in unequal societies are less healthy than similar people in more equal social systems.
This important book can give needed background to such groups as the Occupy Movement. Also, at this time of national debate on how we tax and which social programs to invest in, Wilkinson and Pickett present a compelling argument for our nation to reallocate our wealth more equally across class lines.
I think frequently of that woman and boy in the Appalachian Mountains. They were among the disposable people at the very bottom of our economic system. Their poverty not only nearly kills them, but it also diminishes the rest of us. Now we have statistics that demonstrate the across class destruction that comes from such an unequal and, I think, immoral system.