While generally accepted that inequality is a bad thing, how exactly is that so? Beyond philosophical arguments, what is it about inequality that makes it bad? That’s a question that Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett examined at a societal scale in their 2009 book The Spirit Level and have continued at an individual level with their newest book, The Inner Level. The volume’s subtitles help explain the evolution; Spirit’s is “Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger” while Inner’s is “How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Wellbeing.”
In this Social Science Bites podcast, social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson lays out the case that inequality should be fought specifically because it fosters a litany of ill effects. (In 2013, his partner Pickett laid out the case for equality in her own Bites podcast.)
“In The Spirit Level,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds, “we showed that in more-unequal countries, with bigger income gaps between rich and poor, there is more of a whole range of health and social problems. Life expectancy tends to be lower, more obesity, higher homicide rate, more people in prison, more drug problems, more mental illness. Basically what we showed was that all the problems that have what we call social gradients, problems that are more common down on the social ladder, get worse when you increase the status differences between us.”
What’s surprising, he adds, is that these negatives don’t just punch down – while the effects are stronger among the poor in fact they affect broad swathes of the population. Being well off does not inoculate you from the malign effects of inequality.
Knowing that, Wilkinson and Pickett, armed with additional research that’s taken place in the last eight years, started to look at how that occurs. Wilkinson said at the time Spirit published they didn’t feel they had enough details to lay out the cause, but their hunch was that it revolved around status, “how inequality creates, or strengthens, feelings of superiority and inferiority.”
As he explains here, based on massive and repeated questionnaires, we know that status anxiety – and its ill effects such as worsening health — affects everyone, the super-rich and the dirt-poor, in the most unequal countries. Status anxiety, he suggests becomes an ironic unifying characteristic across an unequal landscape, which in turn leads him to speculate that if this were recognized it could an earlier step toward creating a more equal society.
The podcast concludes with Wilkinson offering advice on creating that society by addressing income inequality by developing “economic democracy,” since an egalitarian society reduces these negative effects described above and makes us happier and healthier overall.
Wilkinson is professor emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, an honorary professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London and visiting professor at University of York. He co-founded The Equality Trust, with support from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and remains a member if the trust’s board.
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For a complete listing of past Social Science Bites podcasts, click HERE. You can follow Bites on Twitter @socialscibites and David Edmonds @DavidEdmonds100.