The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die

Viking. May 2017. 256p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9780525429814. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780698409378. SOC SCI
The social and economic impacts of inequality are profound, and well-documented, but what of the psychological effects? Payne (psychology, Univ. of North Carolina) makes a strong, evidence-based case that inequality, or simply the perception of inequality, affects us individually in ways that are also profound, life-changing, and predictable. He gathers the fascinating, and sometimes unsettling, findings from an array of surveys and experiments, field observations, and socioeconomic trends that address such issues as why, evolutionarily, people who are (or feel) poor live in the moment, and why people who are (or feel) well-off prepare for the future. Touching upon implicit bias, the deepening political divide, and the accelerating concentration of wealth among the superrich, his research also looks at how stress, biologically intended as a brief reaction to an immediate crisis, became a long-term state of being; and what connects race, discrimination, and inequality. On the policy level, Payne suggests a path to reduce inequality by identifying and responding to it as a public health problem. On the individual level, he recommends shifting from a focus on comparisons with others to attention to what we most value.
VERDICT This timely and accessible volume unpacks a complex problem, and points toward solutions.

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