Inequality: the Enemy between Us
Richard Wilkinson speaks to Equality West Midlands
The whole issue of income inequality, and how it’s depreciative effects on societies where the gap between rich and poor is at its highest, was brought to the fore by the publication in 2009 of the groundbreaking ‘The Spirit Level’. Co-authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett convincingly demonstrated that high income inequality played a negative role in all areas of life, not just affecting the poor but everybody living in that society.
Their book immediately made Wilkinson and Pickett the epidemiological equivalents of rock stars and thrust the issue into the national spotlight. Politicians, including the Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, have talked about the need to reduce inequality in the UK, whilst the authors set up The Equality Trust (TET) to promote the findings found in ‘The Spirit Level’ and urge policy-makers to act fast to avoid the further corrosion of society.
For two years, Equality West Midlands has run as a campaigning group affiliated to TET, but this was undoubtedly the most high profile event in the group’s history- after all, it’s not every day that a co-author of the book that inspired the group comes to speak to them!
The evening was held at the Quaker Meeting House in Birmingham city centre, and was attended by at least 85 people. Whilst some of the attendees were excited members of Equality West Midlands, it was great to see that others came from the Quaker Peace Committee, the Green Party, and other interested organisations. Earlier in the day, I’d heard Richard Wilkinson speak to a captivated audience at the Active Inclusion Summit, hosted as part of Birmingham’s Social Inclusion Process. After a 45 minute talk about the principles of ‘The Spirit Level’, there were still cries for more- almost as if they were calling back The Rolling Stones for an encore. It’s fair to say I was looking forward to this talk.
Professor Wilkinson opened the lecture by showing us a picture taken outside King Cross station of a group of commuters. NOBODY in this picture looks at all happy; they’re either looking unhappy, stressed or have their mobile phone glued to their eat- all of them stand as lone individuals. Although life in the 21st century is much better than just two centuries ago, it’s not a Utopian paradise. Despite the central heating systems and televisions in most homes and the ability to travel quickly and safely in cars, the high levels of self-harm, drug abuse and violence show that ours is still an unhappy world. The common perception is that the problems mentioned above are more prevalent in poorer areas, but in fact, they occur amongst people in all social strata. If anything, these problems are much more common in unequal societies generally than they are in equal societies.
Through a series of graphs which used data from multiple sources, including the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and the OECD, Wilkinson demonstrated again and again that countries with higher levels of income inequality have much greater social problems than countries which have lower levels.
Wilkinson started by noting that economic growth and the resultant wealth does not make the wellbeing and happiness of children any better and economic growth is neither the determinant of life expectancy anymore- in York, a growing British city where Wilkinson is based, there is a difference of 10 years in the life expectancy of people living in the richest and poorest wards of the city. Later investigation shows that a similar picture can be found in Birmingham: people living in wealthy Four Oaks have a life expectancy of 84 years whereas people near the city centre are not likely to make it beyond 76 years. [http://birminghamnewsroom.com/2012/12/the-2013-challenge-is-to-bridge-the-public-health-gap] Wilkinson views the vast differences in your life expectancy depending upon where you happen to live as tantamount to ‘human rights abuse.’
‘The Spirit Level’ attributes this discrepancy to the levels of income inequality in a society- the higher the inequality, the worse the disparity. High income inequality also affects other important statistics: the level of trust of other people is far lower in unequal countries; whilst in the more equal Japan only 8% of the population have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, in the greatly unequal United States, a quarter of Americans have mental health issues; there are ten times more prisoners locked up in American jails compared to those in Japan; the number of homicides in the US is ten times more than even in neighbouring Canada.
On the subject of social mobility, about which many politicians have pontificated, Wilkinson argues that the relationship between income inequality and social mobility is very important. Often, it seems that if a father is rich, then his son will also grow up to be rich. Professor Wilkinson noted, with dark irony, that if you really wanted to ‘live the American Dream’ your best chances of doing that would be in… Denmark!
The graphs presented in The Spirit Level and at the talk clearly demonstrated, time and time again, that the more unequal a country, the worse its social problems- the same culprits (the UK and the USA) appeared at the top of the lists whilst more equal countries like Japan and the Scandinavian nations reported far less problems. This raises the question of how, in the UK, we can go about tackling the problem and making our society more equal before inequality becomes more of a ‘pollutant?’
There are several answers- for example, wealth could be redistributed via the government imposing higher taxes on higher earners and spreading the money down the chain in the form of benefit payments; alternatively, the gap could be lowered by raising the incomes of the lowest paid (e.g. through the introduction of a Living Wage). Wilkinson proposes also looking at how national characteristics can be shaped in the battle to create a more equal society, for the issue of income inequality doesn’t just affect the poor- it affects everyone. The differences between even those deemed as middle-class and the richest in society are wide thanks to income inequality.
The issue of class becomes ever more important in an unequal society- people begin to feel valued or de-valued, inferior or superior; their health and wellbeing is adversely affected; they indulge in more status competition; they are more wary of being judged; most worryingly, there is more prejudice. The issue is outlined most starkly when comparing the average pay of the leaders of FTSE 100 companies and the average pay of their lowest-paid workers- expressed as a ratio, it’s a shocking 300:1. Professor Wilkinson commented that the obsession with social status and the resulting pressures on society was completely inverse to the benefits brought about when human society is more co-operative. He concluded this section of the talk by reminding us that the word ‘companion’ effectively means ‘someone you share bread with’- it would be best for everyone if we focussed on companionship instead of competition.
Members of the audience were then invited to ask Professor Wilkinson questions. Topics included how reforms to the British welfare state will affect inequality, the political reception to ‘The Spirit Level and whether we should talk about ‘fairness’ instead of ‘inequality’ due to potential confusion over different meanings of the word. Wilkinson pointed out that due to ‘lags’, it may be a while before we can really understand how government measures impact on inequality (for better or worse), but noted that new research has shown that even from the age of 2, inequality and its consequences can determine how different children will develop.
Professor Wilkinson, however, refuses to get depressed- he sees the opportunity to discuss income inequality and how it affects society as ‘exciting.’ There’s already a film being made about ‘The Spirit Level’, which Wilkinson hopes will have the same effect on the subject as Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ did for climate change. Wilkinson’s end goal in all his endeavours is to get back to establishing genuine relationships and, in the process, repair damaged societies.