Inequality is in the news again this week, with Oxfam’s headline about 85 people owning half of global wealth. There are plenty of stories highlighting increased inequalities in pay. For example, in 1980, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies got nearly 10 times the pay of their average employee. In 2007 that had gone up to…

… 500 times. Is that a problem? Even if wealth doesn’t trickle down, the rich do pay more in tax and those in responsible jobs deserve to be paid more. Equality should be about fairness rather than treating everyone the same.

But high levels of inequality are damaging, and the cause of many social problems. That’s according to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their 2010 book The Spirit Level, which I’ve been re-reading, and which that CEO story comes from. They argue that inequality “makes countries socially dysfunctional across a wide range of outcomes”:

  • levels of trust
  • health
  • mental illness and anxiety disorders
  • drug and alcohol addiction
  • life expectancy and infant mortality
  • obesity
  • children’s educational performance
  •  teenage births
  • homicides and violence
  • imprisonment rates
  • social mobility

The analysis is based on extensive research, and while some points are debated, it’s important work. For example, rather than focusing on problems such as teen pregnancy or obesity in isolation, it suggests governments would be more effective if they tackled the inequality which is the root cause. Three other points which strike me forcibly are:

  • The effects of inequality are felt by the vast majority of the population, not only the poor. High public expenditure is needed to cope with the effects of inequality. While the rich may contribute a lot in taxes, their financial policies put all at risk, and their conspicuous consumerism increases pressure on others to keep up.
  • Equality isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a party political issue. While inequalities have widened more in countries with free-market ideologies, such as the UK and USA, political solutions come from left and right. For example, the state can use taxes and benefits to redistribute very unequal incomes, or aim for greater equality in gross incomes before taxes and benefits. Businesses can share the rewards of success more equally.
  • Human beings are social animals and social status matters to us. Even if we aren’t concerned about material status, we care about where we stand in relation to others and readily compare ourselves in other ways. (Friends, Followers, Likes, anyone?) I hear this as a personal challenge to be less driven by my own status insecurities.

“For a species which thrives on friendship and enjoys co-operation and trust, which has a strong sense of fairness  … social structures which create relationships based on inequality, inferiority and social exclusion must inflict a great deal of social pain.”

So if you care about the issues, why not get a copy of the book? Or find out about current research and campaigning on inequality at The Equality Trust. Make change happen.

Anne Borrowdale is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk

 

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