Five years after The Spirit Level, its authors argue that research backs up their views on the iniquity of inequality
A lot has happened in the five years since we published our book, The Spirit Level. New Labour were still perhaps too relaxed about people becoming "filthy rich". And there was an assumption that inequality mattered only if it increased poverty, and that for most people "real" poverty was a thing of the past.
But so much has changed. In the aftermath of the financial crash and the emergence of Occupy, there has been a resurgence of interest in inequality. Around 80% of Britons now think the income gap is too large, and the message has been taken up by world leaders. According to Barack Obama, income inequality is the "defining challenge of our times", while Pope Francis states that "inequality is the roots of social ills".
In the past five years, we've given over 700 seminars and conference lectures. We've talked to academics, religious groups, thinktanks of both right and left, and to international agencies such as the UN, WHO, OECD, EU and ILO. The truth is that human beings have the tendency to equate outward wealth with inner.worth.. Iinequality colours our social perceptions. It invokes feelings of superiority and inferiority, dominance and subordination – which affect the way we relate to and treat each other.
As we looked at the data, it became clear that almost all the problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies – including mental illness, drug addiction, obesity, loss of community life, imprisonment, unequal opportunities and poorer wellbeing for children. The effects of inequality are not confined to the poor. The health and social problems we looked at are between twice and 10 times as common in more unequal societies. Inequality affects a large proportion of the population. Research confirming both the basic pattern and the social mechanisms has mushroomed. It's not just rich countries where greater equality is beneficial, it is also important in poorer countries. Even the more equal provinces of China do better than the less equal ones.
Almost absent were studies explicitly linking income inequality to psychological states. But new studies have now filled that gap. That inequality damages family life is shown by higher rates of child abuse, and increased status competition is likely to explain the higher rates of bullying confirmed in schools in more unequal countries.
Strengthening community life is hampered by the difficulty of breaking the ice between people, but greater inequality amplifies the impression that some people are worth so much more than others, making us all more anxious about how we are seen and judged. Research has shown that greater inequality leads to shorter spells of economic expansion and more frequent and severe boom-and-bust cycles that make economies more vulnerable to crisis. The International Monetary Fund suggests that reducing inequality and bolstering longer-term economic growth may be "two sides of the same coin". And development experts point out how inequality compromises poverty reduction. Lastly, inequality is being taken up as an important environmental issue; because it drives status competition, it intensifies consumerism and adds to personal debt.
In Britain, the coalition government has failed to reverse the continuing tendency for the richest 1% to get richer faster than the rest of society. The Equality Trust calculates that the richest 100 people in Britain now have as much wealth as the poorest 30% of households. It is hard to think of a more powerful way of telling people at the bottom that they are almost worthless than to pay them one-third of one percent of what the CEO in the same company gets. Politicians must recognise that reducing inequality is about improving the psychosocial wellbeing of the whole society. [Abridged]
© 2014 Guardian News and Media
Richard G Wilkinson is a British researcher in social inequalities in health and the social determinants of health. He is emeritus professor of public health at the University of Nottingham and co-author, with Kate Pickett, of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better