The answer to the title question is ‘no,’ of course. However, some public health crusaders, carrying the torch of the Occupy movement, make such an assertion. A recent study claims that 40,000 die annually in Canada because of income inequality. It concludes, predictably, that to prevent such deaths, the government must “redistribute” more wealth from rich individuals and fat-cat corporations to the poor. Let’s examine the validity of these claims and the proposed solutions.

We know from (valid) statistical studies, that people in lower income groups have higher mortality rates. (Note that such studies have found no correlation between income inequality and health). However, we also know that statistical correlations do not tell us anything about cause and effect; on the basis of these statistics, we cannot say that poverty kills people or that poverty causes poor health. Those with low incomes and no private health insurance may not be able to afford certain expensive drugs or to travel abroad to get private health care services. However, in the Canadian public health care system, they do receive care, although they may have to wait for it for a long time. (This is not an endorsement of public health care but merely an acknowledgement of the current system. In a private system, low-income earners would depend on mutual aid societies or charity).

But the question really is: what causes higher rates of disease among low-income earners?
Since the gene pool is randomly distributed across income levels, genetic factors can be ruled out, which leaves us lifestyle choices: diet, exercise, and other factors that are chosen by individuals. Indeed, family physician Ryan Meili tells that “in his [poor] inner-city neighborhood in Saskatoon, the rates of diabetes, heart disease, STDs, infant and overall mortality rates [are] many times greater than in the rest of the city;” a claim likely confirmed by statistics. In these diseases, individual lifestyle choices are big causal factors.

The public health “equalizers” argue that the poor cannot afford good food and don’t have time to exercise because they have to work all the time or cannot afford the gear needed. However, healthy diets can be afforded on small budgets, and the only gear needed for walking are shoes.

The equalizers’ next argument is that the low-income earners make poor lifestyle choices due to lack of education. They are too poor to afford to go to school or work such long hours that there is no time for school, the argument continues. If we only “redistributed” more income to them, they would choose to go to school, get educated, and make better lifestyle choices, and be healthier and live longer lives.

The fundamental problem with all the arguments for improving health outcomes by “redistributing” income to reduce poverty and to narrow the income gap is that they ignore a basic fact: human volition. We can “redistribute” income and wealth until everyone is poor and there is nothing more to “redistribute.” However, because people make different choices, the evenly distributed poverty will not prevail for long—unless the government instantly pounces on anyone attempting productive efforts to improve his lot.

There are differences in income and wealth because some choose to be more productive than others. Am I blaming poor people for their poverty? Not necessarily. It is possible for someone to be born into poverty, which obviously is not a choice. However, normal human beings (absent disability) living in poverty can choose to change their lot through effort and education. And many do, as the statistics again show people moving from lower income groups to higher ones. In developing countries, amidst true poverty, witness the incredible entrepreneurship and thirst for education, evidenced by tens of thousands of private schools in the slums of Asia and Africa.

The argument that narrowing the income gap between the wealthy and the poor will improve everyone’s health defies facts and logic. Health outcomes can be improved by reducing poverty, which is not achieved by “redistribution” of wealth—but by leaving people free to make their own choices to improve their situation. The wisdom of Benjamin Franklin still holds true: “I am for doing good to the poor, but…I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. I observed…that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thankyou Jaana for digging to the essentials of the matter.

    One contribution in Canada is the many dysfunctional tribal reserves. Some like Musqueam and Okanagan do well, some muddle I suppose, some are run by despots.

    While genetic ancestry has been blamed for susceptibility to particular diseases, and is in some cases such as sickle cell anemia, a study of influenza in MB showed no correlation with tribal genetics. It found correlation with crowded and unhealthy living conditions common on reserves. (Well over half of persons of tribal genetics do not live on reserves.)

    And in the US there’s the young black male culture, they hurt others – especially each other. (Apparently young black females have more sense, perhaps because they are busy taking care of the offspring of dalliances with the jerks.)

    What’s the real cause?

  2. I suggest the real cause of poverty is bad ideas about life, and poor thinking skills, which are the cause of most mental illness.

    Intoxicant abuse is a common cause of poverty, as the individual is less employable and spends much money on intoxicants. It is also a cause of health problems – alcoholics tend to have poor nutrition, and of course in the long term develop serious problems like liver disease.

    Bad ideas about life, and poor thinking skills, result in more flawed decisions, which reduces the individual’s income and increases their costs.

    “Occupy” types teach bad ideas to be accepted on faith (the only way the contradictory ideology of Marxism can be). But poor people especially need solid ideas and clear thinking skills. The “Occupy” mentality also objects to policing, yet poor people need the justice system most as they have the least financial resiliency.

    Schools do not teach good ideas and thinking skills, evidenced by inability to substantially eliminate bullying and by the bad behaviour I see on the streets. I fear a real divide between graduates who have achieved in school and ne’er-do-wells who are cannon fodder for mob instigators such as in Ferguson MO.

    And governments get in the way of building and earning, including by adding cost to mobility for work and imposing quotas on occupations.

    As for Ben Franklin’s advice, there’s a maxim in the religion that many supporters of neo-Marxist activists (such as MP Elizabeth May) follow, to the effect of teaching someone to fish, a skill that will feed them for a lifetime, rather than giving them fish.

    • Thanks, Keith–for both of your comments–much appreciated! (This is the third time I am writing the reply, and somehow I managed to hit some key that made all my typing disappear, so I am giving up on substantive comments …). Agree that the fundamental cause of poverty, substance abuse, and all human misery is the inability to to think clearly (at any level of intelligence). The bad education system deserves much of the blame for that.

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