Wall Street Makes Me Sick: Economic Inequality and Our Health

Recent events around Occupy Wall Street and local occupy movements around the country have raised concerns about corporate power and inequality that polls show are shared by the majority of Americans.  It turns out most Americans are sick and tired of Wall Street greed.


What’s more, increasing economic inequality is making many sick and tired Americans even sicker. Much attention has been appropriately paid to a recent Congressional Budget Office report showing that the wealth of the richest 1% of Americans has grown by 275% since 1979 – nearly 7 times more than the growth for middle income Americans, and more than 15 times that of the bottom fifth of the population.

But less attention was paid earlier this year to a Centers for Disease Control report on health disparities among Americans, showing that as income inequality has grown, health outcomes have worsened for poor Americans, even in some areas where outcomes improved overall. The Wall Street debacle may take these families from bad health to worse:  as the report states, “Because vulnerable populations are more likely than others to be affected adversely by economic recession, the recent downturn in the global economy might worsen [these] health disparities….”

(Or, as a professor of mine might have said, the report shows that it’s better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick).

Among the health issues documented in the report are:

  • Poor pregnancy outcomes: while overall infant mortality rates improved slightly in the US between 2000 and 2006, infants born to black women are still 1.5 to 3 times more likely to die than those born to white women. CDC notes that “considerable differences in infant mortality rates among racial/ethnic groups have persisted and even increased, demonstrating that not all racial/ethnic groups have benefited equally from social and medical advances.”
  • Poor air: while both wealthy and poor suffer in areas with poor air quality, CDC found that  “racial/ethnic minority groups, who are more likely to live in urban counties, continue to experience a disparately larger impact.”
  • Poor housing: In the US, of the approximately 110 million housing units, 23.4 million are considered unhealthy, meaning having one or more condition (rodents, water leaks, peeling leaded paint, or missing or broken smoke detectors) that can threaten the occupants health.
  • Poor access to preventive services: the report found that poorer you are, the more likely you will suffer from preventable hospitalization; eliminating this disparity would prevent approximately 1 million hospitalizations and save $6.7 billion in health-care costs each year. Blacks are more than twice as likely than whites to experience preventable hospitalization.
  • Chronic poor health: Lower income residents report fewer average healthy days.

But the health problems of the poor, like the poor themselves, you might say, have always been with us. True, perhaps, but with Wall Street’s recent colossal greed has come increasing indirect and direct health hazards. We all know that the Street’s insane bets on the housing market have been a major factor in the economic decline (for details, see Michael Lewis’ great book The Big Short or Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia). But how many of us knew, as outlined by a study in the American Journal of Public Health, that people in foreclosure were seven times more likely to suffer from hunger and/or depression and more than six times more likely to be unable to afford to buy their prescription drugs than those who are not behind on their payments?

Is this sickening economic inequality simply inevitable? A chart of social justice indicators among OECD states shows that the US ranks near the bottom: in child poverty, only Chile, Mexico and Turkey rank lower, and overall only these countries and Greece rank lower.

In short, it appears that the US is one of the greediest, sickest countries on Earth. If we expect to address the sickness, we must address the greed.