Why Greater Equality Makes Us Stronger

By every measure that matters, relatively equal nations far outperform nations where income and wealth concentrate at the top. This powerful new book explores these contrasts — and explains them.

The Spirit LevelA review of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Us Stronger. Bloomsbury Press, 2009

Huge numbers of people in the United States hold prescriptions for anti-depressants. Huge numbers of other Americans “self-medicate” — through illegal drugs and alcohol. Huge numbers of Americans, in other words, are feeling plenty of pain. Why? What’s causing all this anguish?

Our conventional wisdom blames the grind of our always-on-the-go modern existence, the stresses and strains of life in the fast lane. The conventional wisdom, suggests this splendid new book, has that half-right. Stress is indeed doing us in. But that stress doesn’t come from “modern life.”

That stress comes from inequality, the vast gaps in income and wealth that so divide us.

How can the authors of The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, be so sure? They’ve crunched the numbers. All of them, you might say.

These two distinguished epidemiologists have identified nearly every social problem where reliable data let us compare how well — or poorly — the major nations of the developed world are delivering a decent quality of life.

People in more equal societies simply live longer, healthier, and happier lives than people in more unequal societies. And not just poor people in these societies, but all people.

Epidemiologists study the health of populations, and Wilkinson and Pickett have, naturally enough, included in their comparisons all the basic health yardsticks. In which developed nations, they ask, do people live the longest? What nations show the highest levels of obesity? Where in the developed world do people suffer the most mental illness?

But the comparisons don’t stop there. In which nations, Wilkinson and Pickett wonder, do children do the best in school? Where do people born at the bottom of the economic ladder have the best shot at climbing up? Which nations send the most people to prison? Have the most teenage moms? Exhibit the highest levels of trust? Tally the most homicides?

Wilkinson and Pickett answer all these questions — and many more. And their answers fascinate. The nations of the developed world, so alike on the trappings of daily life, turn out to differ enormously on the markers that measure how well we lead our lives.

People in some developed nations, the data show, can be anywhere from three to ten times more likely than people in other developed nations to be obese or get murdered, to mistrust others or have a pregnant teen daughter, to become a drug addict or escape from poverty.

And the nations that do the best, on yardstick after yardstick, all turn out to share one basic trait. They all share their wealth.

“If you want to know why one country does better or worse than another,” as Wilkinson and Pickett note simply, “the first thing to look at is the extent of inequality.”

The United States, the developed world’s most unequal major nation, ranks at or near the bottom on every quality-of-life indicator that Wilkinson and Pickett examine. Portugal and the UK, nations with levels of inequality that rival the United States, rank near that same bottom.

Japan and the Scandinavian nations, the world’s most equal major developed nations, show the exact opposite trend line. They all rank, on yardstick after yardstick, at or near the top.

And we see the same pattern within the United States. America’s most equal states — New Hampshire, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Vermont — all consistently outperform the least equal, states like Mississippi and Alabama.

The wider the economic gaps between us, the more social status matters. The more social status matters, the more likely we will be to feel shame and humiliation. The more stress these emotions evoke in us, the weaker we get


People in more equal societies simply live longer, healthier, and happier lives than people in more unequal societies. And not just poor people in these societies, Wilkinson and Pickett emphasize continually, but all people.

If you have a middle class income in an unequal society, you’re going to be more stressed and less healthy — mentally and physically — than someone with the same income in a more equal society.

So what makes inequality so potent a curse? Wilkinson and Pickett explore the impact of inequality from all sorts of angles. Sociologically, for instance, they explain how “the stresses of a more unequal society — of low social status — have penetrated family life and relationships,” how inequality undercuts the sense and reality of community and fosters, in their place, suspicion and fear.

“We tend to choose our friends from among our near equals and have little to do with those much richer or much poorer,” the two authors note. “And when we have less to do with other kinds of people, it’s harder for us to trust them.”

The wider the economic gaps between us, The Spirit Level helps us understand, the more social status matters. The more social status matters, the more likely we will be to feel shame and humiliation. The more stress these emotions evoke in us, the weaker we get.

“Chronic stress,” The Spirit Level observes, “wears us down and wears us out.”

Want the biochemistry behind that wearing down? The Spirit Level has it for you, in passages you don’t have to be a biochemist to comprehend. Wilkinson and Pickett can speak academese as well as anyone. But they don’t speak that here. They’ve attempted instead to make a generation’s worth of scholarship on inequality accessible to the general public. And they’ve succeeded.

The Spirit Level appeared earlier this year in Britain. Wilkinson and Pickett, one British daily noted, may have produced “the most important book of the year.” They have. Anyone can order the British edition, right now, online. An American edition will appear the end of this year.

Sign up for To Much“In the past,” Wilkinson and Pickett note as they close this remarkable book, “when arguments about inequality centered on the privations of the poor and on what is fair, reducing inequality depended on coaxing or scaring the better-off into adopting a more altruistic attitude to the poor.”

But that’s all changed, the authors point out, now that “we know that inequality affects so many outcomes, across so much of society.” Reducing inequality, they add, has become “a project in which we all have a shared interest.”

If you share that interest, get this book. Give this book to others. We need a movement to make the world more equal. This book can help create it.

Interested in getting a more in-depth sense of what Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have to offer? Check out the Equality Trust, a new Web portal on inequality that highlights their data and insights.

.— Sam Pizzigati, editor, Too Much, an online weekly on excess and inequality.

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3 comments for “Why Greater Equality Makes Us Stronger”

  1. The role Of Neo-Liberalism, in widening the income gap between the rich and the poor.

    June 5, 2010 by politicalsnapshots.wordpress.com

    The role of Neo-Liberalism, in widening the income gap between the rich and the poor.

    “One of the most pronounced effects of Neo liberalism is to create wealth inequality within national borders and between states. Within a decade of adopting free market policies, the class divide in the US and UK became significant.” Professor G. William Domhoff. UC @ Santa Cruz.
    It is just another indictment of Neo liberalism and its multi-faceted destructive policies encumbered upon people of the world. It is very fascinating to note, that the income gap between the poor and the rich has more pronouncedly been evident in the US and UK, the joint creators of Neo liberalism.
    This enormous income gap between the rich and the poor in the US has concentrated more power in the hands of the rich and has created a feeling of helplessness on the majority of American citizens who have been marginalized by Neo liberal policies.
    Consequently, sooner or later, the question will arise, whose country is it anyway? It is obvious that the widening of the income gap in the US is close to the breaking point. It is not if, but when it breaks, no one can forecast how it might end. It is just that the Corporations are blinded by greed, and our representatives are muzzled by big business.
    Writing on the subject of Neo liberalism’s impact on social cohesion, David Coburn, from the University of Toronto writes: “While it has been asserted that neo-liberalism produces a lowered sense of community it might also be argued that the rise of neo-liberalism is itself a signifier of the decline of more widespread feelings of social solidarity. The political rise of neo-liberalism is freighted with a more individualistic view of society and, perhaps, itself reflects a decline in the notion of we are all in the same boat. Not only do neo-liberal policies undermine the social infrastructure underlying social cohesion but neo-liberal movements themselves are partial causes of the decline of a sense of social cohesion.”
    It is absolutely frightening, what Neo liberalism is doing to societies. It is corroding the very fiber that societies are built upon. Neo liberalism is cancerous. It is undermining our Democratic system. When a government becomes a by stander when millions are practically becoming paupers, while the few are amassing billions, then, the people have no protector. Laws, Rules and Regulations are in the books only to protect the interest of the rich.
    In a wonderful article entitled, “Skewed Wealth Distribution and the Roots of the Economic Crisis”, David Barber, a Professor at the University of Tennessee, wrote:

    “And what is true in the United States of the unequal distribution of wealth, and of the consequences of that unequal distribution, is true again on a world scale. This super-poor mass of humanity, from whose soil is ripped vast amounts of mineral and agricultural wealth, and out of whose labor the world’s manufactured goods increasingly come, are almost wholly excluded from participating in the world’s market economy”. So, what is to be done?
    While a number of social scientists have forwarded divergent solutions for anarcho-capitalism to save itself, Professor Michael Rustin at the University of East London suggests the following points are “made necessary by the implosion of the neo-liberal system in the current financial crisis, and are needed to construct a new post-neo-liberal phase of democratic capitalism”.
    The five points he has put forward are the following:

    (1) A more active role for governments in regulating markets, and especially global financial markets

    (2) Constitutional reforms which enhance democratic processes and civil liberties, and create more representative and pluralist systems

    (3) Policies, which reduce inequalities, and give greater weight to social justice and social inclusion.

    (4) The enhancement of the capacities of international institutions, and especially the EU, to maintain economic stability and growth

    (5) Programmes to address the problems of climate change.

    Very sensible, are they not? But Wait!!! We have to see which governments have any backbones left in them to try and regulate the market, and do away with thirty years of destruction of the people that started with Reagan and Thatcher.

    As I am ready to post this article, I hear a news story that stated that “Hungary might default on its debt”. What is the world coming to. Wasn’t Hungary the darling of the West? Didn’t it do everything that it was asked to? It privatized everything. It reduced government employment. It cut welfare as it was told to do by “free Market Reform” advisors. Hungary did everything a good and obedient follower of Neo liberalism is supposed to do. Yet, it is threatening to “default” on its debt in spite of a $24 billion IMF and EU loan few months back. This is the fruit of Neo Liberalism.

    Do you wonder, which devoted and submissive follower of Neo liberalism will bite the dust, next?

    Professor Mekonen Haddis.

    Posted by Mekonen Haddis | June 5, 2010, 11:53 am
  2. Hello Sam Pizzigati
    I found the connections explored between inequality and its consequences very interesting. I agree that inequality does have very harmful effects on many aspects of society.
    Would you mind reading my blog at http://taylor-rayl.blogspot.com/2012/02/effects-of-inequality-by-taylor-rayl.html? I would really like to have your perspective.

    Posted by Taylor Rayl | February 20, 2012, 5:56 pm
  3. we can plan each business for living wages & maximum wages to sustain families & reduce greedy corruption or we can keep allowing the liars of policy fronts as corporations bribe most levels & venues in government 843-926-1750 endless oil war profiteering is the result when 11 trillion$ spend on green jobs 20 years ago would promote peace, save lives & would have grown the economy 158 per cent without global warming

    Posted by Larry Carter Center | May 2, 2012, 2:20 pm

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