As income inequality grows among Americans, so does the tension it fuels.
As one of millions in this country struggling to make ends meet, I am weary of inequality and poverty—not only from my own personal hardship and the financial hurdles that exhaust me each day, but also because of the differences in treatment I experience compared to the more affluent.
Case in point: Denver, my hometown—one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. In Denver, the poor and the well-off are practically on each other’s doorsteps. On the 16th Street Mall in Downtown Denver, young professionals walk past homeless individuals daily. Recent college graduates hit the bar scenes in posh Cherry Creek or the exploding RiNo District as minimum wage workers prepare customers’ food and clean their homes—just one of the two or three jobs they likely juggle. At the King Soopers in Stapleton, one customer pays for groceries with a Platinum MasterCard and the next with an EBT card. And in areas like Park Hill, while the majority-black side of the neighborhood struggles with poverty and gang violence, middle and upper class families—mostly non-minorities—live in architecturally ornate homes valued at over a half-million dollars.
These inequalities are more than visual—they add to the huge burden that already weighs on those of us who face economic hardship. Research has demonstrated that inequalities in the housing market drive up rents, and Denver is no exception. While I am grateful that my children and I have been able to live in a two-bedroom apartment for eight years, my rent went up by 11 percent this year and it has been a struggle to meet that increase every month. At this point, I cannot afford a three-bedroom rental (which would be helpful to accommodate my growing children), let alone secure the money to put down a deposit.
And there are also psychological impacts that arise from these inequalities. A 2010 study highlighted this phenomenon when it revealed that countries with high levels of income inequality face high rates of mental illness. In no country was this more evident than in the United States, where income inequality is associated with heightened risk of depressive symptoms and anxiety disorders. This also applies to Denver—I’ve seen firsthand that where there is stark hardship in close proximity to wealth, there will be unrest and desperation.
There are times when I struggle with envy, wishing that I could simply afford a bigger place to live that was closer to the kids’ schools, my evening and weekend jobs, and our friends. My children and I are frugal and enjoy everything we can on a minimal budget—which means not going to full-price movies more than two to three times a year, rarely visiting museums or attending events that cost money, and avoiding vacations. In fact, last summer my kids and I took our first vacation in years—and it was 48 hours long. While we appreciate all that we are able to do and what we do have, it only exacerbates our hardship when we struggle to make rent month after month, and then look across the street to see a manicured lawn, two nice cars, and a double- or triple-sized garage attached to the five bedroom house that holds a family of four.
To make matters worse, my daughter’s friends started excluding her from their plans, saying, “There wouldn’t be a problem if you just had an iPhone.” My child was distraught, telling me, “They don’t understand because their parents haven’t lost their jobs, they’re not on food stamps, and they live in nice homes and drive nice cars.”
The inequalities don’t stop there. We can’t afford to live close to school so my kids spend a significant chunk of their after-school time in the car and with me at work. When other kids are benefiting from enrichment activities outside of the classroom (and have nannies to facilitate the process), my kids go without because I am not always able to be there at drop-off or pick-up time due to my unusual work schedule, and I cannot always afford the fees. It’s these kind of income-based differences in afterschool participation that fuel the widening achievement gap between rich and poor.
And then there are health issues. I haven’t been to a dentist in years because it has been a major challenge to find one who still accepts Medicaid—it’s generally more cost-effective for doctors’ offices to accept private insurance, which more and more Denver residents are able to afford. Unfortunately, the same principle applies to mental health care. And when those in poverty or on the brink of it cannot afford care, mental health needs often go untreated. Meanwhile, those who can afford a therapist or psychologist get the help that they need and it positively impacts their health.
The fact is that how much money you have relative to others matters: from the level of health care you can afford, to the quality of your kids’ education, to where you can live. And as the gap widens between those who have enough and those who are barely making it, it threatens to divide us as a country and as a society.