The perils of being poor in a rich society

‘Social failures’ are prevalent in developed economies and it’s time Hong Kong examined the extent of the problem

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 February, 2018, 2:24am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 February, 2018, 2:24am

Being poor is literally bad for your health. That’s according to a new air pollution study by the University of Hong Kong. The poorer and more rundown the neighbourhoods, the worse the air gets. But of course, Hong Kong people already know that. The study helps quantify the problem, which its researchers call “environmental injustice”.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Overseas, a rich research literature by epidemiologists and social scientists has identified a range of bad social and health outcomes for poorer people in rich societies. To me, it’s the strongest scientific argument against extreme inequalities in developed economies. Hong Kong fits this negative profile well.

Hong Kong’s poor breathing in more bad air than the wealthy, study finds 

In their groundbreaking 2009 book, The Spirit Level, British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett call many modern, rich societies “social failures despite their affluence”. For the poorer segments of society, such failures include higher incidence of mental illness, infant mortality, homicides, imprisonment, teenage sex and pregnancy, obesity/poor diet; and poorer education performance, worse health and lower life expectancy, and low social mobility.

Note that they are talking about 23 of the world’s richest countries, all of them full and/or long-standing democracies, though some may argue about that in the case of Singapore. The problems cannot be solved by growing the economy because they are caused by the material differences between people being too big.

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Just as psychologists have long known that once people reach a certain high level of income, earning more doesn’t make them happier, so once societies have become rich, getting richer does not improve those poor health and social outcomes.

Interestingly, researchers have found significant correlation between growing up poor and people’s assumptions about human nature, likely making them less trusting, affiliative and empathetic, and more aggressive.

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The very existence of the super-rich in developed economies is a sure sign that those health and social problems are worse for the less privileged.

Low taxes and the super-rich – that’s Hong Kong for you. With a record high Gini coefficient of 0.539, our richest 10 per cent of households earn 44 times more than the poorest 10 per cent. The HKU study addresses one aspect of this social failure. But it would be predictive – or not – if more local empirical studies could target other social and health matrices. Chances are they would agree with the conclusions of similar overseas research.