“Our mobile home court is very secure,” the thin retired woman with coiffured gray hair told me. “As you can see, we have a high chain link fence and are a gated community. The crime rate in here is nearly non-existent. I know outside it’s not the same.” She smiled and added, “ We’re mostly from the Midwest.” She stood behind a counter in the office entrance to the park. The sign announced,“Texas Friendly Spoken Here.”
I had entered one of the tidy walled-off resorts for recreational vehicles located in the Texas Valley near Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest areas in the country. Right outside the gates were impoverished rural neighborhoods called colonias where Mexican Americans lived in cardboard shacks or little houses, often without plumbing or water. Fields of crops bordered many of the living spaces. Crop dusting airplanes regularly exposed residents to pesticide poisoning, and children ran and played near deep irrigation ditches.
The woman lived in one of the economically unequal states in the United States, which, next to Singapore, has the highest rate of inequality among nations of the developed world. I wrote an earlier essay describing the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Their book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, talks about the relationship between income inequality and trust. They statistically show that “levels of trust between members of the public are lower in countries and states where income differences are higher.” They ask the reader to “imagine living somewhere where 90 per cent of the population mistrusts one another and what that must mean for the quality of everyday life–the interactions between people at work, on the street, in shops, in schools.” (54) How much that was the case for the people who lived in the walled-off mobile home courts?
Trust matters because it leads to cooperation. People cooperate by donating time and money to other people. “High levels of trust mean that people feel secure, they have less to worry about, they see others as co-operative rather than competitive.” Many studies have linked that trust to health. People with high trust live longer.
“Changes in inequality and trust go together over the years. With greater inequality, people are less caring of one another, there is less mutuality in relationships, people have to fend for themselves and get what they can–so, inevitably, there is less trust. Mistrust and inequality reinforce each other. . . material differences serve to divide us socially.”
In their book Wilkinson and Pickett talk about “dysfunctional societies.” They say that you can predict a country’s performance on one outcome from knowledge of others. If a country does badly on trust or health measurement, you can anticipate that it will “also imprison a larger proportion of its population, have more teenage pregnancies, lower literacy scores, more obesity, worse mental health, and so on. Inequality seems to make countries socially dysfunctional across a wide range of outcomes.” (173) They conclude that the USA suffers from the highest rates of social and health problems in the developed world. The high average income in the USA does nothing to reduce these conditions relative to other countries. (21)
Their message was ultimately hopeful to me, however. They say that there is something we can do about these terrible social problems. The researchers’ careful studies show that by reducing inequality we can create a society that has a higher quality of life for all. They stress that the problems listed above are not part of human nature. The deterioration we experience in contemporary life is reversible. We can create a more equal and healthy society by working to lessen the terrible material inequalities of our culture. Wilkinson and Pickett have suggestions about how to do so. I will write more about their ideas later.
The experience of mistrust between those who lived in their recreational vehicles and those who lived outside was probably was exacerbated by fear of ethnic differences. But according to the researchers, inequality causes not only the poor of South Texas but also the middle-class northerners living in their midst to live diminished lives. I have never forgotten the contrasts between the mobile home court and the make-shift homes of the poor. “Texas Friendly,” the office declared.