The Spirit Level : Why Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better – a controversial book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, makes the claim that inequality has a negative effect on the majority of the population – not just the poor.
According to the authors, in states and countries with a big gap between the rich and poor, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity and teenage pregnancy are more common, the homicide rate is higher, life expectancy is shorter, and children’s educational performance and literacy scores are worse.
According to this data, Japan and the Scandinavian countries have the smallest differences between incomes, and the best record of psycho-social health. On the other hand, the widest gulf between rich and poor – and the accompanying highest incidence of health and social problems – is to be found in Britain, America and Portugal.
One explanation, suggested by the authors, is that inequality increases stress right across society, not just among the least advantaged. Much research has been done on the stress hormone cortisol, which compromises the neural system and in turn the immune system. When stressed, we are more prone to depression and anxiety, and more likely to develop a host of bodily ills including heart disease, obesity, drug addiction, liability to infection and rapid ageing.
Societies where incomes are relatively equal have lower levels of stress and high levels of trust, so that people feel secure and see others as co-operative. In unequal societies, by contrast, the rich suffer from fear of the poor, while those lower down the social order experience status anxiety, resentful of those more successful than them and ashamed of themselves.
According to Wilkinson and Pickett, social problem often create downward spirals – for example, babies with teenage mothers are at greater risk, as they grow up, of educational failure, juvenile crime, and becoming teenage parents themselves. In societies with greater income inequality, more people are sent to prison, and less is spent on education and welfare.
This is an interesting book. Lots of people disagree with it, dispute the statistics the authors present and deny their conclusions. But perhaps the title of the book – The Spirit Level – Why Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better – still makes a statement with which most of us would instinctively agree.
Our approaches to how this should happen might differ, but almost all of us would prefer to live in a just and equal society, given the choice.
So – why don’t we have more just and equal societies?___________________________________________________