News

Best social outcomes where there is lowest gap between rich and poor: book

Monday, June 1st, 2009

Achieving greater income equality is the key to addressing social ills and improving quality of life for everyone according to a new book, The Spirit Level.

It will be discussed at seminars entitled The Spirit Level – Why more equal societies almost always do better this week,  on Wednesday (3 June)  in Belfast and Thursday (4 June) in Dublin.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are authors of the book which shows that more unequal societies are bad for almost everyone - rich as well as poor. This book is based on thirty years research and offers a new approach to improving health, happiness and environmental sustainability.

Richard Wilkinson is Professor Emeritus at the University Of Nottingham Medical School, and Kate Pickett is a Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology at the University of York. 

Their new book, a top 20 Amazon bestseller, has received wide critical acclaim. It has been quoted in a House of Lords debate and reviewed in dozens of publications including the Guardian, Sunday Times, New Statesman, Newsweek, Irish Times and Irish Independent.

Looking at a variety of subjects - physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence and teenage births - the authors find outcomes are considerably worse in more economically unequal societies, whether comparing evidence between the world’s richest countries or between America’s 50 states.

According to Pickett and Wilkinson, Scandinavian countries and Japan, which have the least amount of inequality, generally have the best social outcomes. Canada, Australasia and continental European countries rank in the middle. Finally, the United Kingdom, the United States and Portugal - with the most disparate distribution of wealth - do the worst.

In their research, many measures of the quality of life, including life expectancy, are correlated with the degree of economic equality in each country. A variety of problems, such as mental illness, obesity, cardiovascular disease, unwillingness to engage with education, misuse of illegal and prescription drugs, teenage pregnancy, lack of social mobility and neglect of child welfare, increase with greater inequality.

Violence, from murder to the bullying of children at school, follows the same pattern.

These trends are tied up with issues of trust. The authors chart a profound decline in trust in the United States from the 1960s to the present, which matches rising inequality during the long Republican ascendancy. The only statistic that defies the general trend is that for suicide, the incidence of which is higher in the most egalitarian countries, such as Sweden and Japan.

How can inequality affect such a diverse set of social problems so profoundly?

The authors make a compelling case that the key is neuroendocrinological stress, provoked by a perception that others enjoy a higher status than oneself, undermining self-esteem. This triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which raises blood pressure and blood sugar levels, from which myriad health and social problems unfold.

This seemingly hard-wired response has been well studied in social hierarchies of monkeys: low-status animals become predisposed to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. Humans experiencing chronic stress exhibit similar symptoms, accumulating abdominal fat under the influence of a part of the brain associated with addiction.

Those who wish to hear the evidence and make up their own mind can attend the seminar. 

5.00 – 6.30pm on Wednesday 3 June, Farset International, 466 Springfield Road, Belfast;
5.00 – 6.30pm on Thursday 4 June, Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin 2.

Contact sharon.brennan@publichealth.ie to attend the Belfast event or aisling.oconnor@publichealth.ie to attend the Dublin event.  Further information can be accessed from http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk.

by Ann Marie Foley