Social status is often thought of in terms of level of income, but it is also judged by what kind of houses people live in, how well they are dressed, how well they speak, or who their associates are. People of higher status are healthier and live longer than those of lower status. Higher status people enjoy many other advantages. They have greater control over their lives and are more engaged with society. Their children do better in school and have better jobs open to them. All this is documented in a book, The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity by Michael Marmot.
Marmot’s book deals first with the effects of status on people’s health. There is a gradient in mortality and the incidence of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, mental illness. People of low status are more likely to be afflicted with all these forms of poor health than those of higher status. This is not primarily because lower status people tend to have poorer health habits, lack of access to health care, or have unlucky genes. Nor do people tend to achieve high status primarily because they have good health. There is a tendency for people with higher intelligence or cognitive powers to be more socially successful. Although Marmot does not discuss this, anyone reading his book is likely to wonder about the extent that those with high status are systematically able to maintain their advantage for themselves and for their children. We certainly know that powerful people, corporations and industries have lobbyists who work to reduce their tax burdens and aid and protect them in other ways. Whatever the reasons, there is a tendency for people who come from lower status backgrounds and neighborhoods to be thwarted from realizing their potential. Marmot attributes the differences in people’s health and well-being primarily to differences in the social environment in which they live. Low status leads to having less control over your life and reduced opportunities for social interaction.
The book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett compares 23 relatively affluent countries and the 50 states of the United States with each other. It shows trends among the 23 countries and among the 50 states on statistics such as life expectancy, health and social problems, frequency of teenage pregnancies, infant mortality, crime rates, obesity, and drug abuse. There are clear trends for these problems to be greater where there are great disparities of income. The problems are not correlated to per-capita level of income. Countries or states with the highest income inequalities are the most dysfunctional. However, policies to reduce income inequalities by imposing highly progressive taxes do not seem to work. A much more comprehensive approach to building more fulfilling lives for ourselves, closer friendships, more welcoming communities and more public-spirited national policies seems to be needed.
The barriers of status are primarily barriers created by the social environment. Having a low status causes people to have less autonomy, less control over their lives. The jobs that are open to them tend to have few opportunities for planning and decision-making. Their daily lives offer few options. Owning a car and having money to spend provide important freedoms.
Another barrier associated with low status is a lack of “social capital”, meaning living in an environment where people have a low level of trust in one another, low standards of fairness and helpfulness, and a low level of civic engagement in terms of the number of groups and associations to which people belong.
Lack of autonomy and lack of social engagement are tantamount to not realizing one’s full potential and not living a fully human life.
Each of us has several roles, whether as parent, partner, child, employer, employee, resident, citizen, opinion former, opinion consumer, older person, group member. What we do in these roles has an important influence on our own autonomy and opportunities for social engagement and has an effect on the autonomy and social engagement of others. All of us can help to bring about a transformation of our culture, making us more willing to bridge social differences, to become more open to one another, to enhance social mobility, to give greater power to labor unions and other means of collective bargaining and collective social action. We can build a greater concern for others by joining efforts to foster respect, empathy, and concern for others and willingness to meet others’ needs.
In Marmot’s words we can all “become agents of change: changing ourselves, changing the debate about the kind of society we want, and taking steps to improve it.”
Wilkinson and Pickett see a great need for a social movement for equality. They urge us not ignore inequalities between rich and poor countries. Narrowing income differences within rich countries will make them more responsive to the needs of poor countries, devoting a larger share of national income to foreign aid, being less militaristic, and showing a greater willingness to cooperate in reducing global warming.
They then say,
“A social movement for greater equality needs a sustained sense of direction and a view of how we can achieve the necessary economic and social changes. The key is to map out ways in which the new society can begin to grow within and alongside the institutions it may gradually marginalize and replace… Rather than waiting for government to do it for us, we have to start making it in our lives and in the institutions of our society straight away. What we need is not one big revolution but a continuous stream of small changes in a consistent direction. And to give ourselves the best chance of making the necessary transformation of our society we need to remember that the aim is to make a more sociable society, which means avoiding disruption and dislocation which increase insecurity and fear and so end in a disastrous backlash. The aim is to increase people’s sense of security and reduce fear; to make everyone feel that a more equal society not only has room for them but also that it offers a more fulfilling life than is possible in a society dominated by hierarchy and inequality.” (pp 231-232)
They distill their message by saying, “…further improvements in the quality of life no longer depend on further economic growth: the issue is now community and how we relate to each other”. (p.247)
There is a book called Concern for Others by Tom Kitwood published by Oxford University Press. The author says that we acquire a concern for others by having people in our lives who demonstrate respect, empathy, and concern for us and a willingness to provide for needs we are unable to satisfy ourselves. Having such people around us causes us to behave in the same way, to be caring and considerate human beings.
We can make an effort to be this kind of person toward the people around us and to be open and caring to everyone.
Jesus lived in a very stratified society. The Pharisees were often haughty toward the uneducated members of the general population. The Sadducees were rivals of the Pharisees. Neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees dared express their contempt for King Herod who was subservient to the Roman governor Pontius Pilot. Jesus taught a new set of values in His Beatitudes and parables and His practice of conversing with tax collectors, lepers, and sinners, men and women of every sort.
Fr. Tom Bonacci, the Executive Director of the Interfaith Peace Project, http://www.interfaithpeaceproject.org, in a recent sermon asked his audience to not waste time judging how well the Pope and the bishops have done in implementing the ideas of the Second Vatican Council or trying to guess what their future success will be. He instead urged each of us devoting energies to implementing in our own lives what the Council has taught us.
The Second Vatican Council taught us that the work of the Church and of the People of God is to transform the world. The priests are our spiritual leaders but the transformative work must be the work of the laity in our everyday work lives. We need to join forces with other Christians, with people of other faiths and with groups and organizations with no religious affiliation in building caring relationships not marred by barriers of status or cultural differences.