Friends. Economics. They’re strongly related. It makes sense. Friends are more than good times, emotional support, a cup of sugar or a ride when the car’s in the shop.
Friendships keep us connected, and connectedness wards off self-doubt, anxiety and pessimism. Numerous studies confirm the connection between friendship and well-being. When we’re with friends, we’re likely to feel appreciated and at ease. After all, when folks hang out with us, it means we’re good company and fun to be with.
If, in contrast, we lacked friends and felt like people are avoiding us, it would be easy to feel bad about ourselves. Most of us would wonder: “What’s the matter with me? Am I really a boring, unattractive creep?”
When we’re relaxing with friends, joking and telling stories, we don’t feel judged. In fact, feeling judged is antithetical to friendship. And here’s the connection to economics: As a society becomes more and more unequal, as the distance between the haves and the have-nots grows, the more we judge each other. The more we judge and feel judged, the more anxious and stressed we feel. It turns out that the intensity of the stress we experience depends on our position in the social hierarchy.
Greater inequality heightens people’s anxieties by increasing the importance of social status. While our status and wealth – from unskilled low-paid work to success, money and pre-eminence – affects our sense of self-worth, as well as the way our colleagues, neighbors and family view us. The clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the houses we own seem to measure our worth as individuals. Instead of accepting each other as equals, getting the material measure of each other becomes more important as status differences widen.
As status differences increase, as the social hierarchy is stretched out, the less likely we are to feel relaxed and comfortable in a wide range of settings – work, school, community, church. Then our networks of friends and associates shrink.
As this occurs, social capital – the benefits generated by our connections with and to other individuals, family members, co-workers and neighbors – declines. Fewer connections, fewer friends, less social capital. Social capital, in turn, is a great predictor of social mobility, trust and mental health.
Maine has mobility issues. The Pew Center on the States measures economic mobility in the states. Of the 14 states with less upward economic mobility than the nation as a whole, Maine and Vermont are tied for dead last. Here, only 27 percent of the population who start in the “bottom half of the regional earnings distribution … move up 10 or more percentiles over a 10-year period.”
Maine has trust issues. An April Gallup poll found that only 40 percent of the state’s residents have “a great deal or a fair amount” of trust in state government, well below the 50-state average of 58 percent.
Maine has mental health issues. In Maine, 20.05 percent of adults have some mental illness. Nationally, the average is 18.2 percent. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, the news is more disturbing: Compared to their peers in other states, a higher percentage of Maine youths experience depressive episodes and use illicit drugs. The story among adults is similar.
The share of Mainers with serious mental illnesses – disorders severe enough to disrupt at least one area of social functioning, such as holding down a job or taking care of a family – exceeds that of the nation, and fewer Mainers report better functioning as a result of treatment. (“Behavioral Health Barometer: Maine, 2013,” www.samhsa.gov)
Will these problems just disappear if Maine’s public policies sought to reverse rather than accentuate economic inequality? No. Would these problems become less severe? Yes.
The relationship between rising income inequality and declining social well-being is well established. Communities with a high degree of equality also enjoy more mobility, more trust and better mental health. As inequality rises, every indicator of personal and community well-being declines. The quality of our lives depends on the equality of our circumstances. If not for yourself, then for your kids and grandkids, reverse the curse – of income inequality.
Susan Feiner is a professor of economics and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. She can be contacted at: