Peter Mandelson proved true to his word when he said that new Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” While the last 10 years has seen an end to the rapacious growth in inequality presided over by Margaret Thatcher, the super-rich have still been getting wealthier while those at the bottom have stagnated. Conventional wisdom scorned at those who felt uneasy about million pound bonuses. If the country is richer overall everyone benefits, so let the ‘wealth creators’ get on with it and wait for the money to trickle down. Conventional wisdom was wrong and for those who doubted it, now there is substantial evidence to prove it.
Research carried out by the Equality Trust and published in a new book The Spirit Level reveals that there is a startling correlation between inequality and social problems. Once a society reaches a certain level of affluence it no longer matters about levels of income, instead it is the difference between the rich and the poor which we should be concerned about. Whether looking at physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage births or child well-being – the greater the level of inequality the worse the outcome. Mental illness is three times more likely in the US as in Japan; in the UK there are nearly twice as many infant deaths as in Sweden; and Australia – a nation famed for its sporting prowess – has approximately twice the levels of obesity compared to the Netherlands. These examples are not handpicked extremes but point to a conclusive trend.
The French playwright, Henry Becque, quipped that “what makes equality such a difficult business is that we only want it with our superiors.” For many people higher up the social hierarchy there is a belief that greater equality holds nothing for them; a belief which has proved a stumbling block for those trying to convince people that we should strive to decrease the gap between the richest and the poorest. Perhaps, then, the most striking finding from the Equality Trust’s research is the myth destroying fact that in unequal societies the better off suffer as well. One example shows that children from wealthy families in unequal nations have lower literacy levels than their counterparts in more equal countries; there are numerous more.
So greater equality rather than higher average levels of wealth is the key to future development. As the report concludes, ‘we have now come to the end of what economic growth can do for developed countries. Measures of well-being or of happiness no longer rise with economic growth ‘ For rich countries to get even richer makes little or no difference to the prevalence of health and social problems ‘ Societies with smaller income differences between rich and poor are more cohesive: community life is stronger, levels of trust are higher and there is less violence. The vast majority of the population seem to benefit from greater equality.’
With the attention of government and the media focused on fighting the recession, plans to develop a more equal society are lacking. Higher taxes for the richest, increasing the minimum wage, capping bonuses, limiting pay and increasing inheritance tax for the wealthy few are just some of the possible ways to level the playing field. At precisely the time when substantial changes can be made it is important that political pressure is applied so that we do not see a return to the old, failed and unjust policies which allowed the UK to become one of the world’s most unequal societies.
To support the Equality Trust and campaign for a more equal society sign the Equality Charter – http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/take-action – and write to your M.P.
The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, is written by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and is published by Allen Lane.
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This post was written by Matt Genner