Inequality: a blight on our nation?

I went to another lecture last night! Kate Pickett talking about “Inequality: the enemy between us” at Liverpool University. I’ve been interested in her work since I did my dissertation, so I thought it would be good to share it. She is co-author, with Richard Wilkinson, of a book called “The Spirit Level”, which explores the relationship between the level of equality in society with various other measures of wellbeing, more of which on the Equality Trust website.

The lecture started by taking us through the main findings of this research. As you might expect, as a country grows richer, so life-expectancy in that country improves. This is a general pattern across all countries until a certain level of income is reached. At the point where countries would be considered rich, any further increase in income no longer leads to its citizens living longer. Comparing rich countries by income and life-expectancy shows that there is no longer a link between the two. So, for example, Portugal and the USA are respectively poorest and richest in this group of countries, but both have relatively low life-expectancy, while Norway (richer), Spain (poorer) have better life-expectancy. Japan has the best figures, while its income is in the middle.

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This doesn’t seem to make sense, as higher income correlates to better life-expectancy within a country. However, when a measure of well-being (including life-expectancy) is plotted against a measure of equality, the results are startling. There is such a strong association between the two that Prof Pickett joked that it looks more like a physics experiment than the kind of outcome normally seen in social science research! We then went on to see many more examples of how inequality is associated with poorer outcomes for other indicators of health and wellbeing, such as the UNICEF measure of child wellbeing, which shocked us in the UK when we came last a couple of years ago. What this shows is that it is not money which leads to better health and longevity, but rank – a person’s status in society.

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So far, we had seen lots of data, and an interesting association. The next part of the lecture considered why inequality might lead to worse health and social wellbeing. Apparently, if you have more friends, you are less likely to catch colds, and if you cut yourself (not badly) you will heal more quickly if you are in a good relationship with your spouse. Who knew?! This is a demonstration of the impact which social affiliation has on our physiology – our healing processes and immune systems. Psychologists have demonstrated that tasks which involve “social-evaluative threat” are the most stressful to complete. That is, maths tasks might be a bit stressful, but they are much more stressful if you know your score will be revealed and compared with everyone else’s. In situations like this, performance worsens if you are subject to “stereotype threat” – ie if you belong to a group which stereotypically is expected to perform worse then you will (on average) perform worse. Stress has an impact on our immunity and on our ageing, and social status even affects our neuro-biology. Perhaps chronic stress is the reason for the differing outcomes – does greater inequality emphasise the differences between social status, causing greater stress and thereby impairing our health, happiness and cognitive function?

But the link between inequality and poor health etc is not just of academic interest. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in this group, doing badly on a whole host of measures. That is a lot of people suffering unnecessarily, only because our society is so unequal. Clearly inequality affects the poorest at the bottom of the pile, but the research in “The Spirit Level” indicates that actually, inequality worsens outcomes right across the spectrum of society.

The impact of inequality has a broader impact too. Pro-social behaviour is lower in more unequal societies. More equal societies have more peace, give more foreign aid, do more recycling and have more biodiversity. These are all the “bigger-than-self” kind of issues which are the concern of Common Cause, research which underpinned my dissertation. In the lecture, we heard more about the effect of “priming”. High status people are more likely to behave unethically, but getting the same people to think about the benefits of equality before carrying out a task leads to more ethical behaviour. The Common Cause report also discusses how priming can lead to more pro-social behaviour. This report encourages groups concerned with “bigger-than-self” issues to consider the values and frames in their own communication, to ensure that values which lead to more pro-social behaviour are continually being primed within society. Equality is itself one of those values.

The Q&A session after the lecture showed that there were many in the audience who were keen to see more equality in our society, including many who were unhappy with the way UK society not only seems very unequal, but stigmatises and excludes the poor. So, is there a solution? Can we make our society more equal? We can all start with our individual situation, challenging prejudice and language which stigmatises, and ensuring our own behaviour is not grasping and concerned only with our own status, but rather with the needs of others too. Prof Pickett suggested that it would be good to see greed and individualism become as unacceptable in future as racism and sexism have become today. She also mentioned a book with some interesting ideas “What shall we tell our daughters” by Melissa Benn. Has anyone read it?

Beyond individuals, what changes would we need to see in society to bring more equality? The need to lift the floor was identified as essential, for those who can and those who cannot work. But there is also a need to constrain at the top. This could be done in two ways (it seems to me that both could be done together). One choice is redistribution. This would involve progressive taxation and proper social security, including a living wage, rather than just a minimum wage which is not enough to live on. She urged us to vote for whoever is promising this, but also reminded us that all of this is vulnerable to being undone by a successive government. The other choice is to make a shift in our society so that equality is embedded within it. This would involve improving economic democracy, which will mainly happen within the workplace. It would mean strong trade unions (small ripple of applause at this!), workers on company boards, especially those that set remuneration, more employee ownership, more mutuals and co-operatives, and anything that leads to more community cohesion.

This all sounds good to me. But before I congratulate myself on egalitarian credentials, I was challenged by one answer she gave. There had been some discussion about the increase in narcissism, and Prof Pickett joked about a self-questionnaire to identify it which asks if you think you’d run the world better than it is currently run. So someone asked her what she would do if she ran the world, though she modified her horizons and only answered for this country. Are you ready? She said she would abolish all private education so that absolutely everyone would go to a state school, and she would introduce inheritance tax at close to 100%. I don’t feel like such a radical socialist now!

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5 thoughts on “Inequality: a blight on our nation?

    1. Thanks for this – I think the close the gap campaign deserves a post all of its own! I will do some research and post something as soon as I can.
      PS Hope your conference in Sheffield goes really well – wish I could join you, but other commitments in Liverpool are keeping me away Jo

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