People in more unequal societies have worse health and lower life expectancy, no matter how rich the society is
By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett : The evidence shows unmistakably that more equal societies – those with smaller income differences between rich and poor – are friendlier and more cohesive: community life is stronger, people trust each other more, and there is less crime and violence. So the deep human intuition that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive is true.
People in more unequal societies have worse health and lower life expectancy; they are more likely to have drug problems and to suffer more mental illness. Measures of child wellbeing are worse and children do less well at school. Rates of teenage births, obesity and violence are all higher, and more people are in prison.
Unequal states = health and social problems
We examined the effects of income inequality among rich developed countries and checked our results in a separate test bed: did inequality have the same effects among the 50 U.S. states?
The picture was remarkably similar: the more unequal states have more of almost every health and social problem. Rather than making just one or two things go wrong, the evidence shows that the bigger the income differences between rich and poor, the more dysfunctional a society becomes.
Many of the differences in how well or badly more and less equal societies perform are enormous. Rates of infant mortality and mental illness are two or three times as high in the most unequal compared to the most equal of the rich developed countries. Teenage birth rates, the proportion of the population in prison, and sometimes homicide rates are as much as eight or ten times as high.
These differences are so large because the benefits of greater equality are not confined to the poor or to those living in deprived neighbourhoods. Although the benefits of greater equality are largest among people lower down the social ladder, even the better-off seem to gain some benefit from living in a more equal society.
The vast majority of the population do worse in more unequal societies. Even well educated, middle class people with good incomes are likely to live longer, enjoy better health, and be less likely to suffer violence than if they lived in a more unequal society.
These patterns have major implications for how we understand the distribution and causes of these problems within each society. You might have thought that the reason why so many problems tend to be worse at the bottom of the social hierarchy is that the vulnerable move down socially and the resilient move up – as if social mobility sorted people into a social gradient.
But however perfectly people were arranged on the social ladder according to their susceptibility to these problems, sorting alone could not explain why these problems are so much more common throughout whole societies with bigger income gaps between rich and poor.
Another view is that these problems are the result of absolute poverty and poor material conditions – as if the bricks and mortar themselves caused teenage pregnancy or heart disease.
But among the rich countries there is no connection between Gross National Income per head and the prevalence of these problems. Countries like the USA can be twice as rich as others like Greece and Portugal, without it making any difference. Instead, the evidence suggests that these health and social problems are responses to low social status and social class divisions themselves.
Inequality affects us so deeply because it divides us from one another. Social divisions create feelings of superiority and inferiority. Inequality weakens the social fabric and the quality of social relations while increasing status competition and status insecurity. We worry about how we measure up in each other’s eyes and about whether we are valued.
Inequality puts a strain on families
Increased status competition adds to consumerism and debt as we try to keep up with others and present a successful face to the world. Violence increases because inequality makes people more sensitive about how they are seen, more fearful of being disrespected or looked down on – and these are common triggers to violence. Inequality also increases strains on family life and affects child development, especially lower down the social ladder.
There seem to be two quite different routes to becoming a more equal society. Some, like Sweden, start off with large differences in earnings and then reduce the gap through high taxes and generous benefits. Other societies, like Japan, which perform as well as Sweden, have much lower taxes and get their equality by having smaller differences in earnings before taxes.
It looks as if it doesn’t matter how a society becomes more equal as long as it gets there somehow.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are co-founders of The Equality Trust (www.equalitytrust.org.uk) and authors of The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone. Richard Wilkinson will speak on May 1 in Calgary and May 3 in Toronto. See:www.chumirethicsfoundation.ca