The scourge of inequality

Published in Venue, 21 Jul 2010

All things being equal really does make all things better, says Jon Cartwright

Few would argue against having a longer life. But here’s a quick test of your mortal knowledge: at which periods in the twentieth century has British life expectancy risen fastest? Perhaps after the surge of vaccine discoveries in the 1920s? Or perhaps after the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948?

Wrong. In fact, life expectancy rose fastest — for civilians, at least — during the two world wars. No, I’m not kidding. The reason why people started to live longer is simple: society became far more equal. Almost everyone was employed and fuelled by a sense of camaraderie. Thanks to the government, incomes of the poorest shot up by some 10 per cent, while incomes of the middle class fell by almost as much. You can rave about medical breakthroughs all you like, but in developed countries income equality is the surest route to a longer life.

There is a point to all this. Since civilization began, progressive thinkers have had the nagging intuition that societies should be more equal, yet they haven’t had any evidence to prove it. Until now, that is. Over the past 20 years, UK scientists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have been gathering data over dozens of countries on how various social problems are linked to differences in incomes. Their conclusions are shocking.

They found that almost all social problems, from levels of trust to rates of homicide, are directly linked to equality. Countries with the highest inequality, such as the US and the UK, have the most social problems, whereas countries with the lowest inequality, such as Norway or Japan, have the fewest. The scientific trend looks as strong as that between people’s height and weight — except the implications are far more serious.

Wilkinson and Pickett aren’t asking for a revolution, but they are asking for a movement in the right direction. Inequality has risen sharply since the 1980s. It pervades society like a virus, amplifying stress, depression and class tensions, and forcing people onto an endless rat race that does nothing to help their well-being.

If Britain were to adopt the sort of equality seen in Norway or Japan, we could see levels of trust rise by two-thirds, mental illness halved, life expectancy increase by a year, teenage birth rates fall by a third and homicide rates fall by three-quarters. The US could do even better. Its social mobility — that is, the ability of the poorest children to make it into the best-paid jobs — is so bad that Pickett recently remarked: “If you want to live the American dream, you get a flight to Norway.”

But don’t gloat. Like the rest of the UK, Bristol and Bath have seen inequality rise: in Bristol, gross income differences between richest and poorest have jumped by £6000 over the past decade. By countering this trend, not just the poorest but all of us could be happier, healthier, and safer.

Already Wilkinson and Pickett’s research is creating a storm on both sides of the Atlantic. The pair have done over 200 talks in the UK, over 30 in the US and numerous TV and radio interviews. More than 400 parliamentary candidates have signed their “equality pledge” to tackle inequality, and David Cameron mentioned the work in his famous Hugo Young lecture last December.

But true democracy is participatory. Without pressure from below, politicians will not make the changes we need. If you’re reading this in a bookshop, I implore you to pick up a copy of Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, which has just won the Bristol Festival of Ideas book prize. Or if you’re next to a computer, visit the website, where you can see some of their evidence for yourself. Tell your friends. Write to your MP. Even with the mass of undeniable scientific evidence, it took decades for global warming to seriously enter into the political agenda. Let’s not make the same mistake with inequality.