Like many people concerned about social justice, I read books and online resources about eliminating poverty and inequality. About five or six years ago I read The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone and I began thinking differently about how we might address poverty.
What was so compelling about the ideas presented in The Spirit Level was that there were countries in which social and health outcomes were positive and these countries happened to be highly equal (as measured by the Gini coefficient). The authors, both epidemiologists, studied a number of health and social outcomes affected by social status. Income, education, or profession defines social status.
In more equal countries, the following outcomes were strongly positive
- physical and mental health
- high school completion
- social mobility
- trust and community life
- child well-being
In more equal countries, these outcomes were lower
- drug abuse
- teenage pregnancies
The Nordic countries and Japan are among the most equal.* Perhaps not surprisingly the U.S. is the most unequal of the wealthy, industrialized countries. Canada is consistently in the middle. In the area of child well-being, Canada has a particularly low standing. A UNICEF report says that Canada ranked 37th on a list of 41 rich countries for children having access to enough nutritious food, and higher-than-average rates of child homicide and teen suicide. We can do better.
Inequality studies have proliferated since The Spirit Level was published in 2009. In Canada, the Broadbent Institute, the Conference Board of Canada , and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives are researching and discussing inequality. Unfortunately inequality in Canada is rising and we must be careful as to what nations we look toward for policy direction.
Also of interest is the levels of trust and community life were stronger in more equal societies. There is more mixing of people from various socio-economic groups in more equal countries and this would lead to a greater sense of solidarity. When there are vast differences in income levels I think it would be hard for people to feel that “we’re all in this together.”
What is it about inequality that erodes this important dimension often referred to as “social cohesion?” Among other fascinating findings, this question is explored in a new book by Wilkinson and Pickett entitled The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being. The authors wanted to:
“get to the core of the way inequality affects us most intimately, how it gets into our heads to affect our thoughts and feelings, our ideas of success and failure, our relationships with each other, and the stress and mental illness suffered by so many of us. There is a deep psychology of inequality that we need to understand if humanity is to flourish.”
Where inequality is higher, people with lower social status tend to withdraw from society. When people compete for status, anxiety increases and struggling to keep up seems to make us less compassionate towards others. Inequality damages social cohesion, which includes trust, solidarity, civic and cultural participation and agreeableness (being helpful, considerate and trusting).
Civic participation was defined as belonging to groups, clubs or organizations including recreational, political, charitable, religious or professional groups. A study of 24 European countries showed that civic participation was significantly lower in more unequal countries. Since human connection and social relationships are key components of a good life, how many fellow Canadians are missing out on these experiences due to a feeling of inadequacy? Wilkinson and Pickett argue that the single most important reason why participation in community life declines with increased inequality is likely to be that people withdraw from social life as they find it more stressful.
If we think that only poor people suffer from inequality, Wilkinson and Pickett clearly demonstrate that all levels of society are affected. Poorer health, higher rates of violence, imprisonment and drug use and higher teenage pregnancies increase the burden on our health, social and justice systems. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said “no one is free until we are all free.” As one blogger put it “your freedom is bound up in your neighbor’s — no matter how comfortable you are.” While King was referring to the civil rights movement, this call to action is applicable to the inequality that causes people to feel marginalized.
Greater solidarity is the only way we are going to be able to tackle the urgent challenges of climate change and environmental sustainability, says Wilkinson and Pickett. We cannot afford to have people anxiously struggling to make their way in an individualistic society that tells us we need to buy to belong.
How do we create a more equal society? An unconditional basic income would certainly help. Progressive taxation and a stronger social security system could also help. Wilkinson and Pickett argue that the development of more democratic workplaces is key in this era of excessive CEO compensation and the weakening of trade unions.
It is important that we turn our attention to rising inequality in Canada. When we understand the significant cost of inequality and are open to learning from more equal countries, we will be better able to imagine and forge a better future for everyone.
*Countries in this comparison included Canada, Western Europe, the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.