Richard Wilkinson is an epidemiologist and a leader in international research of inequality. He is also the co-author of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger with Kate Pickett. Their book has been described by The Sunday Times of London as having “a big idea big enough to change political thinking. In half a page,” the Times says, “it tells you more about the pain of inequality than any play or novel could.”
His TED talk — “How economic inequality harms societies” — has garnered over 1 million views on the TED website since October 2011.
We caught up with him to talk about how inequality can be dangerous to our health.
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Riley: You published your book in 2009. Since then the growing disparity between the very rich and everybody else has come to dominate the Occupy Wall Street movement and political campaign rhetoric in the U.S. and Europe. What do you think is missing from the conversation that we’re having?
Wilkinson: What’s missing is action. Although, in Britain and perhaps in the U.S., shareholders are beginning to reign in some of these bonuses, not nearly enough is being done. The pattern we’ve found in our research is quite extraordinarily clear. More unequal countries, the ones with the bigger income differences between rich and poor have much more violence, worse life expectancy, more mental illness, more obesity, more people in prison, and more teenage births. All these problems get worse with greater inequality, because it damages the social fabric of a society.
Riley: Why do you think that is?
Wilkinson: In more unequal societies, the levels of trust — the number of people who feel they can trust others — drops to about fifteen or twenty percent. But in more equal societies, more like sixty or sixty-five percent feel they can trust others. I think that makes a difference in the whole social fabric, not only what it feels like to live in those places, how safe you feel if you’ve got to walk home alone at night in any major city, but also in business transactions and an increase of crime and so on. It has consequences for almost every aspect of how a society works.
Riley: What accounts for this mistrust?
Wilkinson: In a society where some people seem to count for everything and are hugely important and valued — remember how we used to regard the bankers as brilliant? — and other people are looked down on has consequences for how we see ourselves, our worries about how we’re seen — and status.
The big multinationals often pay the most junior employees only a quarter or one third of one percent of what they pay their CEOs. There’s no more powerful way of saying to a whole swathe of the population that they’re worth almost nothing.
As these differences in status get bigger, status competition seems to increase and people judging each other more by status. You know, are you somebody I should pay attention to or are you someone I can ignore completely. And what inequality does is shift us a bit more towards competition with each other — and a bit further away from the cooperative reciprocity. All these social comparisons and anxieties and so on, become worse.
Riley: When you’ve got a lot of people who are feeling neurotic and self-conscious and stressed out, what does that mean for a society’s mental health?
Wilkinson: I’ve learned how important chronic stress is in terms of general health — affecting the immune system, the cardiovascular system. And the most important sources of stress have to do with social relations, for instance, whether or not you have friends, how many you have and the quality of your close relationships. More friends and good relationships are highly protective of health. One recent study found that whether or not you have friends is marginally more important to your health than whether you smoke.
Riley: Is there any historical research about whether the U.S. was doing better in all of these areas when we weren’t so unequal?
Wilkinson: When the U.S. was one of the more equal countries, its health was amongst the better, not quite at the top, but— in the top few. Now, it comes behind all the other developed countries. And it swapped places with Japan, which used to be one of the more unequal countries, had bad health, but then from the ’50s through the ’80s, they became more equal. Their health outstripped every other country in the world. Their crime rates went down. But the U.S.’s position relative to others has slipped all through that period.
Riley: How do we make the case to the 1% that a more equal society is better for everyone?
Wilkinson: What we can say is the vast majority of the population, given a somewhat decent level of income and education would probably live a bit longer and their kids would be likely to do a bit better at school. They’d be less likely to become victims of violence. Their kids would be less likely to become teenage parents or to get involved in drugs.
I think gated communities are an indication that the rich are feeling the rest of society is dangerous and threatening. And of course, even if they send their kids to private schools, they in some sense share the same culture, listen to the same music and get involved in many of the same problems. You can’t completely isolate yourself. In that sort of way, the vast majority of the population do better in more equal societies.