Inequality: the enemy between us?

Richard Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor of Social Epidemiology, University of Nottingham and Kate Pickett, Professor of Epidemiology, University of York are co-directors of The Equality Trust and authors of The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better.

There is a long list of health and social problems which tend to be more common in the most deprived areas of Britain. The further down the social ladder you look, the more common they are. The pattern is the same whether you look at heart disease, homicides, teenage birth rates, mental illness, imprisonment, drug abuse, obesity, poor maths and literacy scores, low levels of child wellbeing, life expectancy or infant mortality.

In The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better, we show that almost all the health and social problems known to be related to social status, are also all much more common in more unequal societies. Countries with bigger income gaps between rich and poor, like the USA, Portugal or the UK, are plagued by anything from two to six times as many of each of these problems as more equal countries like Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Bigger income gaps make social status more important and all the problems related to social status get worse.

Kate Pickett and Richard WilkinsonWe test the relationship between inequality and each society’s burden of these health and social problems not only among the rich developed market democracies, but also – to provide a second quite independent test bed – among the 50 states of the USA. In both settings there is a strong tendency for more unequal societies to do worse. Some of these relationships are now very well established: hundreds of studies show that more equal countries are healthier and at least 40 show they have lower homicide rates.

Greater inequality seems to make societies socially dysfunctional – right across the board. Societies which do badly on one problem, tend to do badly on all of them, or, if they do well on one they tend to do well on most. Inequality seems to make almost everything go wrong.

People have always imagined that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive. The data shows this intuition is truer than anyone realised. What was a private hunch has become an objective and publicly demonstrable truth.

Nor is it just the poor who benefit from greater equality. Although they seem to benefit most, the vast majority of the population does better in a more equal society. Even middle class people on good incomes are likely to live longer, be less troubled by violence and more involved in community life. Similarly their children are less likely to fail at school, less likely to be bullied, less likely to succumb to drugs or to become teenage parents. In a really important sense, greater equality seems to improve the real quality of life for everyone.

More unequal societies are more stressful: inequality increases status competition and status insecurity. The data on trust, social cohesion and violence all show that greater inequality leads to a deterioration in the quality of social relations in society at large. We become less sociable and more out for ourselves.

Inequality also increases consumerism. Money, as an indicator of social status, becomes still more important; hence people in more unequal societies work longer hours. As advertisers know, the fear is always that if we buy second rate goods we will look like second rate people. Hence violence is more common in more unequal countries because the most common triggers to violence are loss of face, people feeling looked down on or disrespected. In societies where bigger income differences make status more important, we become even more sensitive to how we are seen.

Rich societies have got to the end of the real benefits of economic growth. It no longer increases happiness or measures of wellbeing, and it no longer drives the increases in life expectancy. Having reached the end of what growth can do for us and facing the need to rein in carbon emissions, it is time to turn our attention from material standards to our social needs and the quality of the social environment.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • Yes, but all those lovely equal societies get a huge subsidy from those horridly unequal Americans, be it in global security, medical technology, information technology, and pretty much any technology really. If Sweden had to pay for the world’s best R&D in the world’s best universities, it would probably be able to redistribute less income, too. The same applies domestically: once New York shuts down that terribly stressful Wall Street in the name of bankers’ chi, it’s unlikely that the other 49 states will be able to afford their present level of living standards.

    If we had taken the author’s advice and stopped economic growth 20 years ago, we would not be reading this now on our computers using our internet. Perhaps I am being presumptive in suggesting that the authors would be willing to choose a point in the last 5,000 years at which they would be happy with our progression from hunter-gatherers. I thought this kind of anti-modernist nonsense belonged on the Green Party website, not LibDemVoice.

    Simply put, this isn’t a policy recommendation that we should hope unequal societies to adopt, if we are interested in the long-run well-being of the human race.

  • I’m sure it’s true that more equal societies are healthier and more successful. Who couldn’t want that? Not me.

    But the real question is how you move an unequal society to being a more equal one. My concern is that the ‘obvious’ solution to this issue – basically just increasing benefits and subsidies to the poorest sections of society and increasing taxes on everyone else – would increase inequality in the long term as it disincentivizes work.

    The solution to inequality has to be to give as many people in society the incentive and opportunity to become educated, work hard and bring their children up in a way which allows their children to make a full contribution to society too. Get that right and a more equal society will surely be the welcome but unconscious outcome of the associated virtuous circle.

  • Edward,
    The authors don’t give any advice and certainly don’t advocate stopping economic growth.
    The countries listed as having more equal societies are certainly not among the poorest in the world.
    Also, high spending on R&D is not dependent on an unequal society.
    Your argument appears totally illogical, are you running a fever?

  • Jo,

    Yours is a sensible suggestion on the face of it but I suspect the tax and spend policies required to sustain a prosperous and equal society are quite different from the policies required to create one. Are there any examples in ‘The Spirit Level’ (or anywhere else for that matter) of countries that have managed a successful transition from less equal to more equal societies whilst increasing their overall wealth?

  • David Allen 21st Dec '09 - 4:54pm

    Edward, Rod,

    You seem to be assuming that high inequality helps a society to increase its overall wealth. Is there any real evidence for this, other than the fact that a lot of rich people would like us all to believe so, for reasons of obvious self-interest?

  • Who are these academics to tell me I’d be happier singing kumbaya with the neighbours? I’d rather own a speedboat and eat diamonds.

    These academics are more interested in equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. I take it that was their starting point, which they then tried to justify. “People have always imagined that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive,” they write- but this us unhistorical and untrue. People used to imagine that unequal hierarchical orders positively solidified society, and that people knowing their place was the key social virtue. That’s what people have been imagining for the last couple of thousand years, the last few decades in certain parts of the European world notwithstanding.

    What they may have meant was “everyone at our dinner parties always imagined that inequality is socially corrosive…”

    This just looks like socialism (of a sort of middle-class self-hating Guardianista kind) tarted up with cod psychology and dubious statistics by some lefty academics.

  • Bill le Breton 21st Dec '09 - 8:23pm

    A hundred and fifty years ago no one associated the spread of diseases like cholera, smallpox and typhus with overcrowding, poverty and poor sanitation. We now would no more allow a small child (in this country) to play in an open sewer than with a loaded gun. Our epidemiological understanding is at the heart of that changed perspective.

    It is possible that the people of 2109 will look back at us in bewilderment that we didn’t see the cause of today’s blighting issues such as poor educational achievement intensifying post 11, crime and violence levels, obesity, social mobility, teenage births, child well-being – as caused by inequality.

    In various areas of Liverpool, for example, thirty years of initiatives have failed to tackle these problems. Just perhaps greater equality is worth trying.

    So before you reject his ideas, please have a good look at them. Read the book, The Spirit Level, and/or go to the Equality Trust Website and download the PowerPoint of the stats.

    His work deserves study and reflection.

    All those who have campaigned in the most deprived areas know that the most corrosive factor in those communities is a lack of trust between individuals in a neighbourhood. It is interesting to see Wilkinson’s correlations between levels of trust and inequality.

    Finally, so much of consumption today is status seeking consumption. It’s the energy that feeds the Upgrade Society. If we could take that driver of really wasteful consumption out of equation, we would still have progress here and in the developing countries (see the link between Foreign Aid and inequality) with far less of the waste of important resources with its harmful impacts on sustainability.

    It is still possible to get the book for Christmas!

  • “Yes, but all those lovely equal societies get a huge subsidy from those horridly unequal Americans global security, medical technology, information technology, and pretty much any technology really.”

    Frankly this is a pretty stupid comment. Well, they’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, are they, for goodness’ sake? They are investing in those activities because they make money in the form of exports and because they like being able to push around other countries. Do you think we have the right to whinge about the “global security” subsidy from when we had an empire? I don’t think so.

    Anyway, if you look at the talent that the US poaches from around the world to staff its universities or the profits it has made from European ideas (ever heard of the jet engine, the space rocket, the world wide web etc. etc?) , then I think it has a pretty good deal.

    The point is that the untrammeled market produces unhappy societies. The question is, how do we make society more equal without totally taking away the rewards of genuine entreprise and initiative and encouraging sloth and indolence? Labour certainly hasn’t found the solution and the Tories, despite all their po-faced moralising about the state of “broken Britain”, don’t give a sh*t.

  • I can honestly say that the ‘spirit level’ has had a greater impact on my political views than any book I’ve read since ‘On Liberty.’ It blew apart my strongly held belief that where there was real social mobility material equality was irrelevant because it showed that unequal societies tend to be those in which a child’s future earnings are most strongly correlated with those of their parents. Hence it was illogical to profess belief in social mobility and indifference towards equality.

    This is not research that I think liberals have anything to fear from. It is not as some previous posters have claimed “socialist” because equality seems to promote wellbeing whether or not it is accomponied by big government or massive redistribution. The nation that scores lowest on Wilkinson and Pickett’s index of social problems is Japan, which has little by way of state redistribution but has market wages that are remarkably similar across occupations. Thus economic liberals – and I’d include myself under that heading – ought to be looking for ways to deliver equality within a market system.

    It also goes a long way towards spiking the social conservatives narrative about a ‘broken society.’ It is not moral breakdown but inequality that produces the outcomes that the Melanie Phillips of this world so abhorr. While Japan with its very traditional values might have little by way of violent crime, obesity or educational failure neither does Sweden, where almost as many children are borne out of wedlock as in.

    The only part of their argument I found really unconvincing is their endorsement of steady state economics. It seemed to me to rest on a rather poorly argued rejection of the possibility of green growth and to ignore the rather alarming implications of the kind of zero sum politics that would prevail stagnant society. The chances of social harmony must be pretty slim in a society where no new wealth is being created, thus any group looking for additional resourses has to take them from someone else. This actually, however, a rather minor piece of the picture and feels somewhat tacked on. Their argument survives perfectly well without it.

    The ‘Spirit level’ is a really good book and I’d thoroughly recomend it.

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