| || || |
|Religion and Politics|
|Organised religion is always ambiguous. It can be both an instrument for good or for great evil. When I consider the history of organised religions the world over and look at the present state of our world and the countless acts of violence committed.
|The effects of inequality|
|A few years ago I was working as a community development worker in one of the UK’s outer housing estates. One day a distraught local resident came in to the offices to talk to one of my colleagues.
Inequality: it’s not the politics of envy
by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
It’s hard to hold onto intuitions that equality and fairness are important when others – including most of the government – seem to have abandoned theirs. A belief in greater equality has always been close to the core of socialism, but does it still make sense in affluent societies, where living standards are adequate for the vast majority and few go hungry or homeless? Is it just Old Labour baggage? Or the politics of envy? And what of the belief that it’s socially corrosive?
Over the last couple of decades it has become possible to compare how unequal different countries are. In the more equal of the rich countries, like the Nordic countries and Japan, the richest 20 percent are about four times as rich as the poorest 20 percent. But in the most unequal rich countries, like the USA, Britain and Portugal, the differences are twice as great: the richest 20 percent of the population may be eight or nine times as rich as the poorest 20 percent. So what difference does it make?
The data shows that inequality makes societies hugely dysfunctional. Greater equality is more important than most of us ever imagined. It affects the whole social fabric. It is not simply that more unequal countries have bigger inequalities in health, in how well kids do at school, or in obesity. Instead more unequal countries do worse overall.
Their populations tend to have shorter life expectancy, higher levels of violence, bigger prison populations, more teenage births, worse physical and mental health, higher obesity rates, more widespread drug abuse, lower levels of trust, less involvement in community life, poorer school performance and lower levels of child well-being. And the differences are not small: each of these problems is between two and six times as common in more unequal societies as in the more equal ones.
In our new book Inequality (Penguin, publication Jan 2009) we analyse the national prevalence of all these problems in relation to inequality. Putting the data together makes the picture clear: there is a systematic tendency for the prevalence of ill-health and of a wide range of social problems to be strongly related to inequality. Though unmistakable, the relationships are consistently ignored.
As well as looking at this amongst the rich developed countries, we also analysed the data among the 50 states of the USA to provide a separate test bed. The relationships with income inequality are again highly significant: the more unequal states do worse in terms of health and almost every social problem. Rather than anything utopian, we are dealing with the different effects of the levels of equality and inequality which exist among the rich market democracies and US states. The data tell us that even small differences in the amount of inequality matter.
Although inequality affects the poor most, its effects also extend to the better off. Even middle class people with good incomes are more likely to succumb to one or other of these health and social problems if they live in a more unequal society. With greater inequality people trust each other less, violence increases and community life is weakened. Inequality is even more socially divisive than
anyone expected. Material inequality establishes the magnitude of social status differentiation which, when fleshed out with all the cultural markers of status, creates the social class distances between us. Bigger status differences seem to increase status competition and insecurity. Looking at the trends in inequality in Britain it is clear that we are suffering the social effects of the dramatic increases in inequality which took place under Thatcher and have not yet been reversed.
That is why Britain does badly, for instance, on teenage births, prison populations, obesity and on measures of child well-being. But how often do these issues get discussed in their proper context?
Knowing that our beliefs about the social costs of inequality are more than borne out by the statistical evidence should increase our confidence and efforts to reduce inequality. The Equality Trust has been formed to campaign on these issues and the evidence will soon be available at www.equalitytrust.org.uk We want to spread the word: your support would be welcome.
Richard Wilkinson is Professor of Social Epidemiology, University of Nottingham Medical School. Kate Pickett is Senior Lecturer, Department of Health Sciences, University of York. Their latest book, entitled Inequality, will be published by Penguin in January 2009
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, 05/02/2009