Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson: Inequality rise is to blame for 'broken society'

FOR some time now, a lot of people have been worried about our 'broken society' – worried about knife crime and youth violence, teenage births and drug use, childhood obesity and the breakdown of trust in our neighbourhoods. Why, in a world of plenty, has life become so stressful and difficult for so many?

Now we have the 'broken economy' as well. Unemployment, housing repossessions, bankruptcies and business failures are all rising. While the rich got richer, we were promised that economic growth would trickle down and benefit us all. The individualistic 1980s mantra "greed is good" morphed into the less aggressive notion of the nineties and noughties - that economic growth would be good for society.

Last month, a 32-year old investment banker talked about his work. Joining an investment bank, he said, was like "joining a gang of jewellery robbers just after they had made the heist of the century and just before they got caught by the police".

It's clear that those at the top, the bankers and trust managers, the regulators and the property barons, haven't cared much about benefiting anybody but themselves. And successive governments have not cared to rein in their pursuit of ever greater wealth or the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

As well as breaking the economy, could the rise in inequality also be the cause of our broken society?

In our book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, we describe new research which shows that more equal societies – with smaller income differences between rich and poor – are friendlier and more cohesive: community life is stronger, people trust each other more, homicide rates are lower and there is less bullying and conflict among school children.

In addition, almost all the health and social problems that we know are more common in the most deprived neighbourhoods are also very much more common in more unequal societies. More unequal societies have worse health and lower life expectancy, more people suffering from drug problems and mental illness, rates of teenage births, obesity and violence are higher, and more people are in prison.

We've examined the effects of income inequality among the rich developed societies and then, to provide a separate test, among the 50 states of the USA. Looking at a wide range of health and social problems in both settings, the evidence shows that a "broken society" results from too much inequality. More unequal societies seem to become socially dysfunctional, doing worse on almost all health and social problems.

When we write about more equal societies, we're not describing an imaginary utopia. Instead, we're analysing the effects of existing inequalities among the rich, market economies. At the more equal end of the spectrum are countries like Sweden, Norway and Japan, where the incomes of the top 20 per cent are three to four times as big as the incomes of the poorest 20 per cent. At the more unequal end of the spectrum are countries like the USA, Portugal and, of course, the UK where the richest 20 per cent are up to nine times as rich as the poorest 20 per cent.

One of the most important findings is that the benefits of greater equality are not confined to the poor and those living in deprived areas. Instead, the vast majority of the population do better in more equal societies. Even well educated, middle class people with good incomes will be likely to live longer, enjoy better health, and will be less likely to suffer violence.

Their children will do better in school, will be less likely to take drugs and less likely to become teenage parents. Although the benefits of greater equality are bigger lower down the social ladder, they are still apparent even among the well-off.

How can we explain these effects? The most important explanation involves the stresses, insecurities and anxieties caused by bigger social status differences and more status competition.

It affects how people feel in relation to one another, and how much we judge each other by status. Inequality also increases the strains on family life, especially lower down the social ladder.

It makes people more sensitive about how they are seen, to being disrespected or looked down on – which are so frequently the triggers to violence. Increased status competition also adds to the pressure to consume.

Some people have always imagined that inequality was divisive and socially corrosive.

Now the statistics show they are right – even small differences in inequality matter and make a huge difference to the quality of life for all of us.

Kate Pickett (Senior Lecturer) and Richard Wilkinson (Visiting Professor) lecture at York University's health sciences department.

They are authors of a new book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.