In their book The Spirit Level (Allen Lane, 2009), epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, of the universities of Nottingham and York, UK, respectively, emphasise the degree of income inequality in a society rather than poverty per se as being a major factor in issues such as death and disease rates, teenage motherhood and levels of violence. They show that nations such as the US and UK, which have the greatest inequality in income levels of all developed nations, also have the lowest life expectancy among those nations, the highest levels of teenage motherhood […] and a range of social problems.
The effects are felt right across society, not just among poor people. “Inequality seems to change the quality of social relations in society,” says Wilkinson, “and people become more influenced by status competition.” Anxiety about status leads to high levels of stress, which in turn leads to health problems, he says. In unequal societies trust drops away, community life weakens and society becomes more punitive because of fear up and down the social hierarchy.
“Really dealing with economic inequalities is difficult because it involves unpopular things like raising tax,” says Nettle. “So rather than fighting the fire, people have been trying to disperse the smoke.” Politically it is much easier to pump money into education programmes even if the evidence suggests that these are, on the whole, pretty ineffective at reducing the effects of poverty.
I might have to pick The Spirit Level from ye olde library.
From an interview with the authors in the Boston Globe:
IDEAS: How did you come to link inequality to social ills?
PICKETT: We considered a whole range of alternative explanations – the size of the countries, the racial mix, the proportion of poor people – and it’s clearly not those things. It’s telling us it’s something about the structure of whole societies that really matters.
And the scale of the differences we find between more and less equal societies are very, very large – teenage birth rates might be 6 or 8 times as high in a more unequal society. Again, that tells us that we’re looking at something that affects the whole of society.
IDEAS: What are the psychological or sociological effects of inequality? Are you saying that the “social pain” you describe can be a cause of violence in unequal societies?
WILKINSON: I think people are extremely sensitive to status differentiation and to being looked down on, or disrespected, and those often seem to be the triggers to violence. We quote an American prison psychiatrist who goes so far as to say he’s never seen a serious act of violence that wasn’t provoked by loss of face or humiliation, and so on. And in more unequal societies, status matters even more. People judge each other more by status. There’s more insecurity. And people at the bottom are more often excluded from the markers of status, the jobs and housing and cars, so they become even more touchy about how they’re seen.
IDEAS: What is the reaction to the book like here in the US? […]
PICKETT: It’s a very emotional reaction, and that surprised us. We sense a real hunger for change, a feeling that people would like society to move in a different direction.