The American Dream is dead. Sorry.
For a nation of great principles and great achievements, America has never been a society of equals. I think the folks participating in Occupy would back me up. But this isn’t about the Occupy agenda. This is about a better society—a better place to live with better people in it.
The message is: inequality harms society.
Wilkinson looked at the health of society by a number of angles. This included government reported rates in health, crime and social statistics. The idea is that a better society has healthier people, less crime, more trust, more social mobility, and so on.
What was found was that the single common correlation to all these values is one thing: equality among its citizens. When people are socially and fiscally equal, society as a whole flourishes.
It turns out what’s not important is a country’s average income. In prosperous and struggling nations alike, there is little to no relation between average wealth and the above rates.
While America has a high average income, it has an intense gap between rich and poor. The U.S. scores depressingly low in nearly every other measure for a healthy society. Some statistics, such as obesity and prison population, are not surprising. However, rates of mental illness, life expectancy and infant mortality are also terribly high in America–much, much higher than any other first-world nation.
How could this be? Inequality.
Bigger income gaps lead to deterioration in social relations (homicide, social conflict, trust), health (drug use, obesity, mental illness, infant mortality, life expectancy) and human capital (math and literacy, high school dropouts, teenage births and social mobility).
Across the board, “the countries that do well are the ones that are equal,” Wilkinson says.
Hence Wilkinson’s choice of my beloved Denmark, where I lived for six months last year. Denmark didn’t score first place in any single category but they consistently performed well in from all angles. Denmark has the smallest gap between rich and poor in the world, and it’s no coincidence. The Danes can thank a highly taxed socialized democracy for this fiscal egalitarianism, but it goes deeper than that.
As a cultural consciousness, Danes feel a sense of camaraderie when it comes to taking care of each other and themselves as a whole. Few citizens can be considered Richard Branson rich, but almost no one is suffering or concerned about getting by. All Danes are guaranteed health care, social security and a free college education, not to mention ample vacation time and generous maternity (and paternity) leave. It’s no coincidence Denmark is repeatedly rated the happiest place on earth.
Though the word socialism scares a lot of Americans, Wilkinson optimistically points out that it isn’t the only way to get there. Like Scandinavia, Japan also boasts a high rate of equality, with the same societal outputs. However, Japan has a very low tax rate akin to the U.S. And it isn’t like Denmark doesn’t love capitalism too. The Danes love to shop and I’d call them some of the most fashionable people I know.
Food is expensive, transport is expensive, everything except good beer is expensive—but it’s all worth it.
For all their taxes, Danes get what the pay for. People are skinny and streets are clean. I for one dream of raising children in a place where there is an absolute safety net for health and crisis. A place where a college education, fair wage, and pension is guaranteed. A place where women have an equal position in politics and culture, and every individual feels valuable to society. A place where they rides their bikes everywhere!
Maybe you have a different view of the American Dream. But as a nation that fosters a quality of life, America has some work to do.
Don’t listen to me though. Watch the TED Talk here.
Ryan Pinkard misses Denmark. An editorial intern at Elephant, Ryan is a wanderlust backpack journalist in training, and a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Find his writing and his images from around the world at ryanpinkard.com. Follow his reviews and exploits on music at milkdrinkscat.tumblr.com.