The Social Consequences of Inequality

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Richard Wilkinson is an epidemiologist and a leader in international research of inequality. He is also the co-author of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger with Kate Pickett. Their book has been described by The Sunday Times of London as having “a big idea big enough to change political thinking. In half a page,” the Times says, “it tells you more about the pain of inequality than any play or novel could.”

His TED talk — “How economic inequality harms societies” — has garnered over 1 million views on the TED website since October 2011.

We caught up with him to talk about how inequality can be dangerous to our health.

Riley: You published your book in 2009. Since then the growing disparity between the very rich and everybody else has come to dominate the Occupy Wall Street movement and political campaign rhetoric in the U.S. and Europe. What do you think is missing from the conversation that we’re having?

Richard WilkinsonWilkinson: What’s missing is action. Although, in Britain and perhaps in the U.S., shareholders are beginning to reign in some of these bonuses, not nearly enough is being done. The pattern we’ve found in our research is quite extraordinarily clear. More unequal countries, the ones with the bigger income differences between rich and poor have much more violence, worse life expectancy, more mental illness, more obesity, more people in prison, and more teenage births. All these problems get worse with greater inequality, because it damages the social fabric of a society.

Riley: Why do you think that is?

Wilkinson: In more unequal societies, the levels of trust — the number of people who feel they can trust others — drops to about fifteen or twenty percent. But in more equal societies, more like sixty or sixty-five percent feel they can trust others. I think that makes a difference in the whole social fabric, not only what it feels like to live in those places, how safe you feel if you’ve got to walk home alone at night in any major city, but also in business transactions and an increase of crime and so on. It has consequences for almost every aspect of how a society works.

Riley: What accounts for this mistrust?

Wilkinson: In a society where some people seem to count for everything and are hugely important and valued — remember how we used to regard the bankers as brilliant? — and other people are looked down on has consequences for how we see ourselves, our worries about how we’re seen — and status.

The big multinationals often pay the most junior employees only a quarter or one third of one percent of what they pay their CEOs. There’s no more powerful way of saying to a whole swathe of the population that they’re worth almost nothing.

As these differences in status get bigger, status competition seems to increase and people judging each other more by status. You know, are you somebody I should pay attention to or are you someone I can ignore completely. And what inequality does is shift us a bit more towards competition with each other — and a bit further away from the cooperative reciprocity. All these social comparisons and anxieties and so on, become worse.

Mental Illness is more common in more unequal societies

The Equity Trust

Riley: When you’ve got a lot of people who are feeling neurotic and self-conscious and stressed out, what does that mean for a society’s mental health?

Wilkinson: I’ve learned how important chronic stress is in terms of general health — affecting the immune system, the cardiovascular system. And the most important sources of stress have to do with social relations, for instance, whether or not you have friends, how many you have and the quality of your close relationships. More friends and good relationships are highly protective of health. One recent study found that whether or not you have friends is marginally more important to your health than whether you smoke.

Riley: Is there any historical research about whether the U.S. was doing better in all of these areas when we weren’t so unequal?

Wilkinson: When the U.S. was one of the more equal countries, its health was amongst the better, not quite at the top, but— in the top few. Now, it comes behind all the other developed countries. And it swapped places with Japan, which used to be one of the more unequal countries, had bad health, but then from the ’50s through the ’80s, they became more equal. Their health outstripped every other country in the world. Their crime rates went down. But the U.S.’s position relative to others has slipped all through that period.

Riley: How do we make the case to the 1% that a more equal society is better for everyone?

Wilkinson: What we can say is the vast majority of the population, given a somewhat decent level of income and education would probably live a bit longer and their kids would be likely to do a bit better at school. They’d be less likely to become victims of violence. Their kids would be less likely to become teenage parents or to get involved in drugs.

I think gated communities are an indication that the rich are feeling the rest of society is dangerous and threatening. And of course, even if they send their kids to private schools, they in some sense share the same culture, listen to the same music and get involved in many of the same problems. You can’t completely isolate yourself. In that sort of way, the vast majority of the population do better in more equal societies.

Take Action

Find out more about the grassroots campaign to create a documentary film based on Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's book, The Spirit Level. The filmmakers have launched a fundraising campaign on the indiegogo website.

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  • JonThomas

    Keep finding these gems, they are good salves against media groups spreading virulent propaganda for the 1%.

    For example…

    Today YAHOO! news’ “The Daily Ticker”  ran an interview with Edward Conard…
    ” ‘Unintended Consequences’: Former Bain Exec Sparks Controversy Over Income

    The latest assault in the 1%’s class warfare on the 99% is Mr. Conard’s book… “Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong.”

    In the interview Mr. Conard defends the 1%’s ability to grow the economy. But as many of your recent articles here have pointed out, the vast majority of people, the 99%, are not sharing in this growth.

    Wages have not increased above inflation in 40 years. Access to affordable Health Care has not improved. Healthy food has not become less expensive, or has it become more available in many disadvantaged neighborhoods. In fact all of these symptoms of the inequality gap have grown worse.

    Those at the top of the equality gap have seen huge gains while the 99% has wallowed in empty promises of trickle down futility.

    Here at M & C, you have been keeping us updated, not with editorial opinions, but, with statistical, measurable, empirical evidence showing both the causes and effects of inequality. Keep up the good work!!

    Oh…as for YAHOO!…The recent shake up of it’s board of directors was instigated by hedge fund investment group Third Point. They successfully pushed their own suggested replacement candidate for CEO of YAHOO!…  Ross Levinsohn.

    Interestingly, Mr. Levinsohn was the President of News Corp.’s Fox Interactive Media. While this doesn’t prove connectedness or over-all policy, viewpoints, or the political leanings which YAHOO! will take, no doubt we will continue to see more headlines like… “5 Secret Habits of Wealthy Americans.”

    I hear the fiddling and smell the smoke.

  • Shelley

    I doubt that we can make the case to the 1%. 

    Narcissism is impenetrable.

  • Wm. Sweeney

    Income inequality is just part of the cause of the deterioration of our society. Another equally important issue is the decline in the availability and quality of public goods — primarily education, transportation and health care. These issues need to be added to the discussion of the growth in “two Americas”. For all of his personal faults, John Edwards clearly saw this issue more than a decade ago…and his message was basically ignored.

  • Gary Reber

    The haves
    represent a tiny fraction of humanity. My colleague Norman Kurland at the Center for Economic and Social Justice ( argues that ideas that advocate broadened productive capital ownership (the means of their wealth) will split them between those
    who see the point and understand that they would benefit everyone without
    taking anything away from them during their lives, and those who want to keep
    ownership in an exclusive club. The latter cannot publicly attack the
    institution of private property without threatening the legal foundation that
    gives them their monopoly over the money system and the ownership system.

  • Larry Swain

    “Rein in,” not “reign in.” I always make this mistake too.

  • Leslie

    Regarding your question: “How do we make the case to the 1% that a more equal society is better for everyone?” I don’t think the 1% can be persuaded to care if things are better for the 99% or not.

  • akemi

    Even though Japan is one of lower income inequality countires, the suicide rate in Japan is extrimely high in the world. More than 30thousand people kill themselves and it’s been 10 years that this number of people have comitted suicide.
    From the point of “trust” in the society or other elements such as growth of the nuclear family etc, I wonder the relationships between the structure of society and the suicide rate in Japan.

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  • Bruce

    I suggest that Bill Moyer’s interview an activist Doctor who is leading a movement to overcome our — partly-economic-inequality-driven — Health Care Crisis from the grassroots up: Dr. Pamela Wible, M.D.

    The general topic focus: radical, patients-directed reform of the U. S. Health Care system, specifically “Community Designed Ideal Medical Clinics” — a populist
    movement all across the U.S. that has been sparked by the work of Dr. Wible.

    How might I best provide MOYERS & COMPANY with the details — including links
    to Dr. Wible’s website’s, videos, book, etc. — regarding this topic?