George looks across the street at the cafe where a cup of java costs $2.75. For that price, he could buy three days’ worth of coffee from the convenience store he’s sitting outside of. It’s Sunday afternoon and from a white plastic chair in the shade he smokes a cigarette and occasionally sips the Van Houtte coffee he bought inside from a Styrofoam cup.
George, who doesn’t want his last name used, lives in an apartment in the west-end Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale. He’s originally from Jamaica and, though he won’t reveal his age, is a retired shoemaker. He lives off of Canada’s Pension Plan, on average $530 each month, and pays rent subsidized by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC).
It’s not only the price of coffee that prevents George from going to the shop -- Capital Espresso -- in the red brick building across the street. “They think that I’m poor,” he says of the patrons, exposing his yellow teeth with gaps between them. “I’m poor, yes. I’m poor. Rich people stay there. The poor people come here. You know.”
According to Richard Wilkinson -- who co-authored The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better and who came to Canada on a three-city Canadian lecture tour in early May -- income inequality breeds negative social judgments. “We infer people’s abilities, intelligence and all sorts of things from their social status,” he said in a recent editorial meeting with Huffington Post Canada. “That’s why low social status hurts and why it’s stigmatized.”
Wilkinson, who spoke to Alberta and Ontario politicians on the tour, calls the damage and strain income inequality has on social relations “the most important source of stress” for those in low-income brackets. The professor emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School says there is proof there are not “natural differences” between classes, but rather behaviours that arise as a result of being raised in certain social hierarchies.
Take for example research done by Dr. Steve Somi, who found that when comparing two groups of monkeys, one reared by their mothers and the other without, there were over 4,000 changes in gene expression. Wilkinson has paired that research with observational studies of human beings to prove that differences between the higher and lower socio-economic classes are environmental.
“The early social environment [in which we are raised] switches genes on and off,” he says. “[Asking yourself] am I in a world where I have to fight for what I can get and can’t trust others because they are rivals, or am I growing up in a world where I must be good at empathy, cooperation, and reciprocity ... breeds quite a different emotional and cognitive development.”
Read more about genes and social status:
Andrew Fraser, a painter and musician who is enjoying a cigarette and coffee outside of Capital Espresso, says though he doesn’t make a lot of money, his upper-middle class childhood has cemented in him a certain lifestyle.
“Money doesn’t determine that kind of position,” he says. “It’s your attitude and your knowledge. You assume class, you don’t earn it, as far as I’m concerned.”
That’s why Fraser, who is 37 and wears white-rimmed sunglasses, can’t break certain habits such as spending $6 on two “sopranos” (which he describes as “an Americano that hasn’t been ruined by a whole bunch of hot water”) despite the fact he only makes on average $2,000 a month.
Fraser’s been living in Parkdale for three months, and comes to this coffee shop because “the girls are cuter,” and he can be around people just like him. Hanging out with those across the street at the convenience store would be harder. “It would require some sort of introduction,” Fraser says, looking at the plastic chairs and smoking a cigarette with a Toronto Star folded on his lap. “They are whiling away their time. I’m just killing 20 minutes.”
Wilkinson says income inequality prevents people from having productive social relations by accentuating differences.
“It not only affects our judgments of others, but affects our judgments of ourselves,” he says. “People at the top start to believe they are superhuman and that they have abilities others just don’t have. People at the bottom start to believe they are stupid.”
He cautions, however, that it’s idealistic to think that by Fraser crossing the street to speak with George, or vice versa, any problems would be solved. Merely socializing would not equalize the financial disparity that forms part of the root of social problems. The solution, rather, is for government to create policies that actually reduce income inequality so that people have more similarities than differences.
For George, he’s happy sitting amongst others from the neighborhood who can’t afford $3 coffees rather than making new friends. “I’m not going to leave there just to talk to strangers,” he says, putting out his cigarette in the tin can on the table. “We have nothing in common to talk about. Everybody should be equal, not poor or rich. But it’s not so.”