Academic journal article Geography

Spotlight on ... the Spirit Level

Academic journal article Geography

Spotlight on ... the Spirit Level

Article excerpt

by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

According to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009), almost all the problems we associate with life in modem developed societies can be traced to one common cause. This is a big idea, one that should radically change the way we think about politics, economics, fairness and social justice. The common factor they have identified has the power to help forge a society that is healthier, where people trust each other more, where children have higher literacy, where there is less stress, less violence, less drug dependence and less mental illness. While we are spending millions to tackle each of these problems individually, often with questionable results, there is one solution that could tackle them all at the same time. This shared answer is not, as many of our politicians would have it, to speed up and strengthen economic growth, forging policy in the fearful shadow of the markets' reaction as if they were some kind of capricious deity. Instead, it is greater income equality: if we want to do better we need to become more equal.

'A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members' (Mahatma Ghandi). Among developed nations, there is a general consensus that one of the functions of the state is to at the very least provide a 'safety net' that protects the poorest in society from the worst effects of poverty, while also taking steps to ensure that people have the opportunities - largely through education and entrepreneurship - to move out of poverty.

This focus on safety nets and social mobility has traditionally had little to say about the role of the rich. Indeed, both left and right have seen the growth of higher income groups as a way of alleviating poverty, which is based on the idea that wealth would 'trickle down' from the richest to the poorest through job and business creation, or through higher tax revenues that can be spent on public goods and redistributive measures. In 1998, Peter Mandelson famously said that Labour was: 'intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich - as long as they pay their taxes'. Economic growth at a national level was seen as benefiting rich and poor alike, as 'a rising tide lifts all boats'. As long as the poor were also getting better off, why should it matter how wealthy the rich were becoming? The message of The Spirit Level, however, is that many of the problems we associate with poverty are not just to do with absolute wealth but also with the level of inequality between the richest and poorest people in society. Perhaps even more strikingly, inequality leads not just to worse outcomes for the poor, but for everybody. Greater equality means we all do better.

The equality gap

Marshalling a formidable wealth of data, Wilkinson and Pickett plot a range of negative outcomes - reduced life expectancy, low educational qualifications, high crime, high proportions of teenage pregnancies, high incidences of mental health problems - against the level of income inequality within countries. In case after case a strong trend emerges: those countries, including the UK and US, with a higher degree of disparity between the highest 20% and lowest 20% incomes fare worse on measure after measure than more socially equal countries such as Japan, Sweden and Norway. So, while the poor in the highly unequal USA may be richer than the poor elsewhere (in terms of purchasing power), they fare significantly worse than their 'poorer' peers in more equal countries. In highly unequal countries, the difference in outcomes between the richest and poorest is seen more at every point along the scale; in unequal countries, people who are justa bit poorer than the richest experience many more problems. While these problems are felt most keenly at the bottom end of the scale, they extend the whole of the way up, meaning that countries with greater inequality have more problems as a whole.

From this perspective, it matters intensely just how filthy rich some people are becoming. …

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