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Richard Wilkinson: Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

Richard Wilkinson is Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham. He studies the relationship between health and other factors in different societies. Together with fellow epidemiologist Kate Pickett, Richard wrote the international bestseller The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. The book sets out a range of evidence that economic inequality harms social wellbeing, eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and encouraging excessive consumption. Richard is a co-founder of The Equality Trust, an organisation that campaigns to reduce economic inequality. Could you start by giving an overview of the argument made in The Spirit Level? What we do in the book is simply show that a great many problems with social gradient, problems that tend to become more prominent lower down the social ladder, are much more common in societies with bigger income differences between the rich and poor. One of the interesting things is that fairly well-off middle class people with good jobs and education do worse in more unequal societies. Less equal societies have rates of infant mortality or mental illness two or three times as high as the more equal societies. Homicides or teenage birth rates, those kinds of problems, you get levels as much as ten times as common in more unequal societies, and that is because it’s not just the poor who are affected by inequality. What are the main ways that income inequality causes these issues in society? Is it one thing or many things? The bigger the material differences between us, the more emphasis is placed on status and class. We judge each other more by status. We worry more about how we are judged. Status anxiety increases at all levels of income in more unequal societies. That is a very important stressor. It affects the quality of social relations in our society and we are particularly sensitive to issues around the quality of social relationships. Studies looking to see what kind of things most reliably raise our cortisol levels, the stress hormone, find it’s worries about how we are seen and judged that matter most – threats to self-esteem or social status. Basically, we’re worried about making fools of ourselves, how we are seen and judged by others. That kind of thing, which psychologists call social evaluative threat, becomes stronger in a more unequal society. The relationship with violence is one of the most indicative of what inequality does to social relations. Because we judge each other by status, status becomes more important in society, people become more sensitive to being looked down on. Humiliation and loss of face - those are the triggers to violence. Socially cohesive societies are more likely to be economically equal, but economic equality promotes social cohesion. What makes you convinced that economic inequality is the main factor? We know that the rise in inequality from 1980 came from neoliberalism and a reduction in top tax rates, privatisations and all the expansion of income differences within companies. No economist ever suggests that social cohesion changed dramatically and led to those other changes. If you are to explain it some other way, the problem you have to explain is why, for instance, the United States has worse health than most other developed societies, more people in prison, higher homicide rates, highest obesity rates, highest rates of teenage pregnancies - a whole host of problems that people normally think of as unrelated to each other. In more equal countries - Japan, the Scandinavian countries - all those things are much, much better. You have to think of something capable of affecting imprisonment, maths and literacy scores, mental illness, teenage pregnancy. You have to think of another cause sufficiently deep-rooted in society to affect problems that are apparently so different from each other. Epidemiologists like yourself study changes in health across populations. When did you start to look beyond health to other things like crime? This isn’t a story I invented. It was in the 1970s that the first papers came out, at least 60 on violence and inequality and at least 300 on health and inequality. But it wasn’t until Kate Pickett and myself got into writing The Spirit Level that it clicked that it wasn’t something special about health or homicide. It was something to do with problems with social gradients in general. Things like breast cancer and prostate cancer have very little or no difference in rates amongst rich and poor. Things like heart disease or death rates for people of working age have strong social gradients. We found that the bigger the social gradient, the stronger was the effect of inequality. The picture really is very simple. Problems related to social gradients within our societies get worse if you increase the social status differences. The only surprise is that they don’t just increase amongst the poor. Do you think there are any key bits of evidence still to be gathered or is it about pushing the evidence we already have? We have to make the rich feel that instead of being respected for their money and wealth, we regard them as greedy and selfish. At the same time, there is a growing sense in the population that so much of this status stuff is stupid and divisive. People are starting to break through it. That’s going to continue. You see this not only in the popularity of our book, but also the huge rise in publications on inequality and the media attention to the issue, in the election of Corbyn for the leader of the Labour party, the support for Bernie Sanders in the United States. The idea that someone calling himself a socialist in the States can get a substantial following in opinion polls is quite remarkable. People are developing ways of working that focus on sharing and more equitable relations. In Sheffield groups like Regather, Union St and the Student Housing Co-Op share skills and buildings. It’s extremely important. In the long term, we have to move to democratising the economy in terms of employee ownership, employee representatives on company boards. It’s in large companies that the inequalities are first created and status differences are most clear in terms of order givers and order takers and line management. People say an employee buyout can turn a company from being a piece of property into a community. It’s in the workplace that we have most to do with each other and we ought to be able to make that a better social space. As workplaces become more democratic, the income differences within them also reduce. What can people do in their day-to-day lives to help reduce income inequality or the impacts it has? I think we have to show we’re angry about it. Politicians must take firm action on these issues. We must also support moves towards greater economic democracy. There should be tax incentives towards employee-owned and co-operative companies. There should be legislation for employee representatives on company boards. A number of members of the European Union have that kind of legislation. We don’t, and we need it. The Equality Trust has local affiliated groups across the country, including in Sheffield. Sheffield Equality Group are running the Inspiring Cinema series of films and activities in the run-up to the release of The Divide, a documentary following the themes of The Spirit Level, which it will screen on 4 May. )

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