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Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson: Inequality rise is to blame for ‘broken society’

(Lecture at York University’s health sciences department; Yorkshire Post Published Date: 12 March 2009)

FOR some time now, a lot of people have been worried about our ‘broken society’ – worried about knife crime and youth violence, teenage births and drug use, childhood obesity and the breakdown of trust in our neighbourhoods. Why, in a world of plenty, has life become so stressful and difficult for so many?

Now we have the ‘broken economy’ as well. Unemployment, housing repossessions, bankruptcies and business failures are all rising. While the rich got richer, we were promised that economic growth would trickle down and benefit us all. The individualistic 1980s mantra “greed is good” morphed into the less aggressive notion of the nineties and noughties – that economic growth would be good for society.

Last month, a 32-year old investment banker talked about his work. Joining an investment bank, he said, was like “joining a gang of jewellery robbers just after they had made the heist of the century and just before they got caught by the police”. It’s clear that those at the top, the bankers and trust managers, the regulators and the property barons, haven’t cared much about benefiting anybody but themselves. And successive governments have not cared to rein in their pursuit of ever greater wealth or the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

As well as breaking the economy, could the rise in inequality also be the cause of our broken society? In our book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, we describe new research which shows that more equal societies – with smaller income differences between rich and poor – are friendlier and more cohesive: community life is stronger, people trust each other more, homicide rates are lower and there is less bullying and conflict among school children.

In addition, almost all the health and social problems that we know are more common in the most deprived neighbourhoods are also very much more common in more unequal societies. More unequal societies have worse health and lower life expectancy, more people suffering from drug problems and mental illness, rates of teenage births, obesity and violence are higher, and more people are in prison. We’ve examined the effects of income inequality among the rich developed societies and then, to provide a separate test, among the 50 states of the USA.

Looking at a wide range of health and social problems in both settings, the evidence shows that a “broken society” results from too much inequality. More unequal societies seem to become socially dysfunctional, doing worse on almost all health and social problems.

When we write about more equal societies, we’re not describing an imaginary utopia. Instead, we’re analysing the effects of existing inequalities among the rich, market economies. At the more equal end of the spectrum are countries like Sweden, Norway and Japan, where the incomes of the top 20 per cent are three to four times as big as the incomes of the poorest 20 per cent. At the more unequal end of the spectrum are countries like the USA, Portugal and, of course, the UK where the richest 20 per cent are up to nine times as rich as the poorest 20 per cent.

One of the most important findings is that the benefits of greater equality are not confined to the poor and those living in deprived areas. Instead, the vast majority of the population do better in more equal societies. Even well educated, middle class people with good incomes will be likely to live longer, enjoy better health, and will be less likely to suffer violence. Their children will do better in school, will be less likely to take drugs and less likely to become teenage parents.

Although the benefits of greater equality are bigger lower down the social ladder, they are still apparent even among the well-off. How can we explain these effects? The most important explanation involves the stresses, insecurities and anxieties caused by bigger social status differences and more status competition. It affects how people feel in relation to one another, and how much we judge each other by status. Inequality also increases the strains on family life, especially lower down the social ladder.

It makes people more sensitive about how they are seen, to being disrespected or looked down on – which are so frequently the triggers to violence. Increased status competition also adds to the pressure to consume. Some people have always imagined that inequality was divisive and socially corrosive. Now the statistics show they are right – even small differences in inequality matter and make a huge difference to the quality of life for all of us. Kate Pickett (Senior Lecturer) and Richard Wilkinson (Visiting Professor) lecture at York University’s health sciences department

* ** *** **** ***** **** *** ** *

(From the interview given  to John Crace of  The Guardian  March 12, 2009)

Another day, another headline: today obesity, tomorrow teenage pregnancy, the day after crime figures. Social problems operate a revolving-door policy these days. As soon as one goes away, another turns up. For the most part, these problems are regarded as entirely separate from each other. Obesity is a health issue, crime a policing issue and so on. So the government launches new initiatives here, there and everywhere, builds new hospitals, puts more money into the police and prisons. And there’s little real hope of improvement.

The statistics came from the World Bank’s list of 50 richest countries, but Wilkinson suggests their conclusions apply more broadly. To ensure their findings weren’t explainable by cultural differences, they analysed the data from all 50 US states and found the same pattern. In states where income differentials were greatest, so were the social problems and lack of cohesion.

Two things immediately became clear to Wilkinson. “While I’d always assumed that an equal society must score better on social cohesion,” he says, “I’d always imagined you could only observe a noticeable effect in some kind of utopia. I never expected to find such clear differences between existing market economies.”

There are anomalies. Suicide and smoking levels are both higher in more equal societies. “Violence tends to be directed towards other people or yourself,” Wilkinson says, “and it is our guess that in societies with a higher sense of community responsibility, people tend to blame themselves rather than other people when things go wrong. Smoking is a little different: all countries seem to follow a similar trajectory. It starts among upper-class men, then moves to upper-class women and then down the social ladder; quitting smoking seems to follow a similar pattern.”

Wilkinson draws on some eclectic illustrations. When monkeys are kept in a hierarchical environment, those at the bottom self-medicate with more cocaine; a caste gap opens in the performance of Hindu children when they have to announce their caste before exams; the stress hormone, cortisol, rises most when people face the evaluation of others; and so on. The result is always the same: fear of falling foul of the wealth gap gets under everyone’s skin by making them anxious about their status.

For a while, Wilkinson and Pickett wondered if the correlations were too good to be true. The links were so strong, they almost couldn’t believe no one had spotted them before, so they asked colleagues to come up with any other explanations. They looked at the religiosity of a society, multiculturalism, anything they could think of. They even looked at the possibility they had got it the wrong way round and it was the social problems that were causing the inequality. But nothing else stood up to statistical analysis.

Wilkinson openly admits The Spirit Level is his swan-song. He feels that as an academic he has fulfilled his side of the bargain by identifying the problem; it’s up to activists and politicians to work out the solutions. Pickett doesn’t see things quite that way, and is largely the driving force behind the creation of the Equality Trust website to campaign for change. “There must be a possibility of change,” she says. “Everything stacks up. Reducing inequality fits in with the environmental agenda; it benefits the developing world, as more equal societies give more in overseas aid; and most significantly, everyone is fed up with the corporate greed and bonus culture that have caused the current financial crisis, so if ever a government had the electorate’s goodwill to act, it’s now.”

Wilkinson is fairly blunt about where government should start. “It has got to limit pay at the top end,” he says. “It’s the rich that got us into this mess and the rich who should get us out of it.” Whether Labour has the nerve to upset those whom it has most assiduously courted is another matter.

But he can always dream, and in the meantime he is off home to watch TV.

“I’ve become gripped by Paris Hilton’s Best Friend,” he laughs. “It’s the perfect example of a dysfunctional, hierarchical society.”


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