Is This the Silver Bullet?

Article excerpt

Why narrowing the gap between rich and poor could alleviate many social problems

What do teenage births, early deaths, homicide, mental illness, underperforming students, packed prisons, and drug abuse have in common? All of them thrive in countries with large gaps between the rich and the poor, report two researchers in the November 2007 Social Science & Medicine. "Rather than providing ever more prisons, doctors, health promoters, social workers, educational psychologists, and drug rehabilitation units," they write, "it may be cheaper and more rewarding to tackle the underlying inequalities themselves."

Over the past few decades, researchers have conducted hundreds of studies linking a variety of maladies and misfortunes to income inequality - which they often express as how many times more the richest people in a community earn than the poorest people in the community. For example, the richest 20 percent of Americans earn roughly nine times more than the poorest 20 percent of Americans, whereas the richest 20 percent of Japanese earn only three times more than the poorest 20 percent of Japanese.

"The differences between these societies are much too large to be explained by what's happening to a poor minority," says Richard G. Wilkinson, a social epidemiologist at the University of Nottingham in Nottingham, England, and the article's lead author. Indeed, although the researchers limited their analyses to wealthy countries, they still found big effects of income inequality - and not just for the poor. "Inequality has a pollution effect," he notes. "It affects everyone's health."

Inequality exacts its costs by causing people to feel less socially secure and more physiologically stressed. "It's about feeling valued," says Wilkinson. …