We tend to assume that inequality in affluent societies is a sign of economic health and social vigour. But the evidence suggests that it makes us sickby Marek Kohn / September 25, 2005 / Leave a comment
The Impact of Inequality by Richard G Wilkinson (Routledge, £19.99)
Richard Wilkinson’s latest book tells us what we already know, and that is why we need it. We know that oppressive, unequal relationships are bad for us, and that broadly voluntary, roughly equal relationships are good for us; and if we think about it we recognise that this is true for societies as well as for personal relations.
Wilkinson’s project, pursued for over 25 years, is to show that these are scientific truths. The effects of inequality are counted above all in deaths. Easy to define, reliably reported and unarguably serious, deaths make for sound data. The foundations of the worldview presented by Wilkinson, who is professor of social epidemiology at Nottingham University’s medical school, are the correlations he finds between death rates and inequality, measured by income. There are other strong associations, between, for example, inequality and homicide—regarded, says Wilkinson, as “the most well-established relation between homicide and any environmental factor.”
What these relationships demonstrate, writes Wilkinson, “is that societies that tolerate the injustices of great inequality will almost inescapably suffer their social consequences: they will be unfriendly and violent societies, recognised more for their hostility than their hospitality.” These remarks are characteristic of his way of writing, in their construction from moral and empathic language, and in their roots in empirical observation. The combination is also evident in the phrase he likes to use to describe the project on which he and others in various countries are engaged: “the science of social justice.”
His most prominent colleague is Michael Marmot, of UCL, who has led pioneering studies in the field. Conventional wisdom views inequality in affluent societies as a residual issue: the persistence of a smallish minority whose relative poverty is accompanied by a concentration of social ills and menaces. Inequality among the remainder is not considered a problem; it is felt that all are “haves,” and that is that. Marmot’s team produced the graphs that show otherwise. Surveying Whitehall civil servants, they found that the lowest grades were about four times more likely to die during a given period than the highest. They were not impoverished, though, nor an underclass distinct from the rest. The obvious suspects, such as smoking and poor diet, were examined and found to account for only about a third of the effect. Most of…