Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

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  • Book: The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009


"In a recent study, two British social scientists have assembled data from nearly two dozen of the richest countries in the world. The data shows how strongly levels of income inequality correlate with a variety of indicators of social well-being. As a rule, more unequal societies have more homicides, violent crime, and prisoners; more mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction), obesity, teenage births, and infant mortality; lower levels of trust, child well-being, children’s educational performance, and social mobility; and lower life expectancies.

The Spirit Level authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, make the argument that we now know “how to make substantial improvements in the quality of life for the vast majority of the population” (p. xi): move toward greater equality of income. For a variety of sometimes complicated but often simple reasons, greater equality of income improves social well-being across a society." (http://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2010/07/05/how-unequal-should-our-incomes-be/)


1. Kim Klein:

"In a brilliant new book called “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger,” authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett compile hundreds of studies to come to this conclusion, “Inequality is the most important explanation of why, despite extraordinary material success, some of the most affluent societies seem to be social failures.” (for more on these studies, go to www.Equalitytrust.org.uk)

In societies where income differences between rich and poor are smaller, statistics show that community life is stronger, there is less violence, health tends to be better and in fact by every indicator, life is better. The authors note that the obvious explanation for this is that there is more poverty in unequal societies and hence more social problems. But, even though it is counterintuitive, they have discovered that in more unequal societies, even middle class people on good incomes are likely to be less healthy, less likely to be involved in civic life, and more likely to be victims of violence. Children of middle class people are less likely to do well in school, more likely to use drugs, and more likely to become teenage parents, than their poorer counterparts in more equal societies.

This book should be of particular use to social justice activists here in the United States. The USA has the highest homicide rates, the highest teenage pregnancy rates, the highest rates of imprisonment and is 28th in life expectancy. The authors say this is BECAUSE it also has the biggest income differences of the 35 richest countries in the world. Even amongst the 50 United States, those with less income inequality do better on all social measurements than the more unequal states. The authors believe we have reached a level of development beyond which further rises in material living standards will not help reduce health or social problems.

What is it about inequality that is so corrosive? In highly unequal societies, people with less wealth are very conscious of having less social status. The authors claim, “The most widespread and potent kind of stress in modern societies centers on our anxieties about how others see us, on our self-doubts and social insecurities….Shame and embarrassment have been called the social emotions: they shape our behaviors that we conform to acceptable norms….” Simply put, a society like the United States, with a long history of racism, classism, sexism has successfully made most people feel bad about themselves. People feel unimportant, unappreciated and not valuable. Everyone wants to earn more, have more, own more--thinking this will make up for being less. But of course it doesn’t. “What hurts about having second rate possessions is being seen as a second rate person.” (http://kimkleinandthecommons.blogspot.com/2010/06/spirit-level-why-greater-equality-makes.html)

2. David Beetham:

"In an additional chapter written for a new edition of the book, the authors do three things. The first is to explain why the message of the book has met with such an overwhelming response from readers and audiences at their many lectures. The reason is that the great majority of citizens in unequal societies of the developed world are ‘closet egalitarians’: they would prefer greater income equality, even though they typically underestimate the extent of inequality that actually prevails. The book has given them compelling evidence to support their intuitive view and to come out of the closet, at the same time as the self-serving justifications for grotesque salaries and bonuses in the financial and corporate sector have been exposed as bogus.

A second purpose of the new chapter is to respond to criticisms of their original findings, and to correct misunderstandings or misrepresentations of their argument. In this context, it seems to me that many of the points made by Gerry Hassan in his review of the book are wide of the mark, not least his claim that the authors ignore the origins of growing inequality in neo-liberal ideology, which is simply wrong. Indeed in this new chapter they identify a strand of criticism of their work which is driven by vested interests in free market fundamentalism, whom they describe as ‘merchants of doubt’, and whose purpose is to discredit established scientific findings in politically sensitive areas, from tobacco smoke to climate change, and to convince the public that they comprise only one possible opinion. Unfortunately, they argue, misplaced ideas of ‘balance’ in the public media may give these doubt merchants equal exposure to the vast majority of scientists who are expert in the subject. And it is the huge body of scientific findings that they cite in support of their work that gives it credibility.

A third task of the additional chapter is to extend the authors’ analysis of the effects of inequality into new areas. Thus they cite evidence which shows a causal link between rapidly rising inequality and the financial crashes of 1929 and 2008, including estimations that in the years before 2008 ‘about 1.5 trillion dollars per year were being siphoned off from the bottom 90 per cent of the US population to the top ten per cent’, reinforcing a massive demand and supply for debt finance. They examine the distorting effects of inequality on the quality of democracy at a number of levels, and they provide new evidence that social mobility declines as inequality rises." (http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/david-beetham/return-of-spirit-level-why-equality-is-better-for-everyone)


By Yes magazine's Brooke Jarvis [1]:

"Epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson is the author, with Kate Pickett, of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

Brooke: You've studied the impact of inequality on public health for a long time. Did any of your recent findings surprise you?

Richard: Oh, all of them. In fact, the relationship is weaker for health than for many other problems—we looked at life expectancy, mental illness, teen birthrates, violence, the percent of populations in prison, and drug use. They were all not just a little bit worse, but much worse, in more unequal countries. If I'd known how strong those connections would be, I would have looked for them a decade earlier. In fact, I'm still surprised that no one did look at them earlier.

There's nothing complicated in what we've done. Epidemiologists and people working in public health have been doing this work for some time, not only controlling for relative poverty, but for all the income levels within, for instance, an American state. So once you know the relationship between income and death rates, for example, you should be able to predict what a state's death rate will be. Actually, though, that doesn't produce a good prediction; what matters aren't the incomes themselves but how unequal they are. If you're a more unequal state, the same level of income produces a higher death rate.

In fact, in more unequal societies, these problems aren't higher by ten or twenty percent. There are perhaps eight times the number of teenage births per capita, ten times the homicide rate, three times the rate of mental illness. Huge differences. If social mobility were a perfect sorting system and everyone was sorted by ability, that wouldn't make the number of problems in the society greater. It wouldn't change the overall IQ of the population; it would just change the social distribution of IQ. We know from the findings that it's the status divisions themselves that create the problems. We're not making a great leap to say that this is causal. We, I think, show that it's almost impossible to find any other consistent explanation.

Brooke: It seems possible that this link hasn't been explored because we're so used to thinking of these problems as linked to poverty. To find out that they're tied not to the level of income but to the stratification of income—it's sort of an unexpected conclusion.

Richard: We show that these problems aren't affected by rich countries getting still richer. There are problems that we think of as problems of poverty because they're in the poorest areas of society, but a country like the U.S. can be twice as rich as Greece, Portugal, or Israel—the poorer of the rich, developed countries we look at—and the problems are no better even though Americans are able to buy twice as much of everything as the poorer developed societies. That doesn't make any difference; it's only the gaps between us that matter now. And that's really quite a striking thing to learn about ourselves and the effects of the social structure on us.

Brooke: How does thinking about these problems in terms of inequality rather than poverty change how we grapple with them?

Richard: I think people have been worried by the scale of social problems in our societies—feeling that though we're materially very successful, a lot of stuff is going wrong, and we don't know why. The media are always full of these social problems, and they blame parents or teachers or lack of religion or whatever. It makes an important difference to people to have an analysis that really fits, not only in a sort of academic way, but also that fits intuitions that people have had. People have intuited for hundreds of years that inequality was divisive and socially corrosive. In a way, that's all the data shows. It shows that that intuition is much truer than any of us expected.

Brooke: Your findings related to crime and imprisonment rates seem to be particularly illustrative of the way inequality can lead to social corrosion. If you grow up in an unequal society, your actual experience of human relationships is different. Your idea of human nature changes: you think of human beings as self-interested.

Richard: We quote a prison psychiatrist who spent 25 years talking to really violent men, and he says he has yet to see an act of violence which was not caused by people feeling disrespected, humiliated, or like they've lost face. Those are the triggers to violence, and they're more intense in more unequal societies, where status competition is intensified and we're more sensitive about social judgments.

We also found very big differences in the proportion of the population that's in prison in different countries and American states. But the differences aren't driven by the amount of crime, they're driven by the fact that people in unequal societies have more punitive attitudes about crime. It may have to do with fear across classes, lack of trust, and lack of involvement in community life. If you've got to go to prison, go to prison in Japan or one of the Scandinavian countries. You might get some rehabilitation. If you go to prison in some of the more unequal countries, you are very likely to come out a good deal worse than you went in.

Brooke: When I first heard about your work, I expected the book to deal with the material impacts of inequality. But your focus is different.

Richard: Yes. This is about the psychosocial effects of inequality—the impact of living with anxiety about our feelings of superiority or inferiority. It's not the inferior housing that gives you heart disease, it's the stress, the hopelessness, the anxiety, the depression you feel around that. The psychosocial effects of inequality affect the quality of human relationships. Because we are social beings, it's the social environment and social relationships that are the most important stressors. For individuals, of course, if you're going to lose your home, or if you're terribly in debt, those can be more powerful stressors. But amongst the population as a whole, it looks as if these social factors are the biggest stressors because so many people are exposed to them.

Brooke: What psychological impact does living in an unequal society have on people who are at the top of the scale?

Richard: Status competition causes problems all the way up; we're all very sensitive to how we're judged. Think about Robert Frank's books Luxury Fever or Falling Behind, or the great French sociologist Bourdieu—they show how much of consumption is about status competition. People spend thousands of pounds on a handbag with the right labels to make statements about themselves. In more unequal countries, people are more likely to get into debt. They save less of their income and spend more. They work much longer hours—the most unequal countries work perhaps nine weeks longer in a year.

If you grow up in an unequal society, your actual experience of human relationships is different. Your idea of human nature changes. If you grow up in a consumerist society, you think of human beings as self-interested. In fact, consumerism is so powerful because we're so highly social. It's not that we actually have an overwhelming desire to accumulate property, it's that we're concerned with how we're seen all the time. So actually, we're misunderstanding consumerism. It's not material self-interest, it's that we're so sensitive. We experience ourselves through each other's eyes—and that's the reason for the labels and the clothes and the cars.

Brooke: What's the effect of inequality on the way we perceive our communities—and how does that perception affect how they function?

Richard: Inequality affects our ability to trust and our sense that we are part of a community. In a way, that is the fundamental mediator between inequality and most of these outcomes, through the damage it does to social relations. For instance, in more equal countries or more equal states, two-thirds of the population may feel they can trust others in general, whereas in the more unequal countries or states, it may drop as low as 15 percent or 25 percent." (http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/want-the-good-life-your-neighbors-need-it-too)