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The Problem of Inequality

For Wilkinson and Pickett, inequality itself creates these differences; increased social anxieties and worries about how we are seen damage social life and lead actually to more violence. The worst affected withdraw from life entirely, and even among the rest of the population who don’t feel it so acutely, we all feel it a bit. T
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© University of York

Inequality has been researched and debated for centuries, indeed it was at the heart of the French revolution! For some, inequality is part of the human condition, a reflection that we are a naturally competitive species and in fact, without this there would be no progress.

Inequality Causes Harm

Others have suggested that inequality is a grave ill, asking how it can be right for such destitution to exist alongside great wealth. These are perhaps philosophical debates, but more recently an argument has emerged that inequality is not only a reflection of a society or a world that isn’t working, but that it also causes great harm.

In their book, ‘The Spirt Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better’ (2009), Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (who is based at York) suggest that inequality is linked to so many negative outcomes that we should think of it as a cause of these outcomes and as such, prioritise tackling inequality.

Inequality Creates Societal Problems

Looking at data across a number of countries over almost thirty years, Wilkinson and Pickett demonstrate how more unequal societies have higher rates of ill – health, a lack of community life, violence, drug problems, obesity, mental health problems, long working hours and big prison populations – as well as many other negative outcomes.

In a follow-up book, ‘The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being’ (2018), the same authors demonstrate that in more unequal countries people are also more prone to chronic stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, unnecessary spending and ruinous gambling.

For Wilkinson and Pickett, inequality itself creates these differences; increased social anxieties and worries about how we are seen damage social life and lead actually to more violence. The worst affected withdraw from life entirely, and even among the rest of the population who don’t feel it so acutely, we all feel it a bit. They argue passionately that inequality diminishes social life because what we value most is laughing, joking, relaxing and spending time with friends and family. That is essential to health and happiness – and yet it’s there that inequality strikes.

Inequality Causes Suffering

In an interview with the Guardian, Professor Wilkinson states that ‘the reality is that inequality causes real suffering, regardless of how we choose to label such distress. Greater inequality heightens social threat and status anxiety, evoking feelings of shame’.

Whether the lower life expectancies, higher teen pregnancy rates, and even lower levels of trust seen in more unequal countries is caused by inequality, or whether poverty is a more powerful explanation, the relationships are strong and the arguments in the books of Wilkinson and Pickett are incredibly compelling – though they have many critics!

To find out more about the work of Wilkinson and Pickett, visit the Equality Trust: https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/the-spirit-level

The following article by Dawn Foster (2018) provided some of the material for this article: https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2018/sep/18/kate-pickett-richard-wilkinson-mental-wellbeing-inequality-the-spirit-level

© University of York
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Understanding and Solving Poverty and Inequality

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