Even New Labour never claimed that inequality was a good thing. However, Labour in government preferred to focus on issues of poverty and social exclusion rather than inequality as such, and the assumption seemed to be that inequality didn’t really matter provided that those further down the income ladder received proper help.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book The Spirit Level challenges this assumption, by arguing (on the basis of vast amounts of international data) that it is inequality, not poverty or average income levels, that lies behind most social problems in “developed” nations. Their data and arguments can be found on the website of the Equality Trust, including slides showing key charts from The Spirit Level.
The essence of their argument can be captured in just two of those slides, the first showing how health and social problems are associated with inequality in developed countries:
However, those same social problems are not related to average levels of income in those countries:
As set out in their book, and as summarised in the other slides, a relationship with inequality is found (to a greater or lesser degree) in relation to each of the social problems contained within the overall measure used in the above charts. (And yes, before anyone says it: they do address issues such as correlation and causation.)
To give just one example: the relationship between inequality and health, as shown by life expectancy between and within societies:
What the second graph in the above slide shows, the authors argue, is that inequality affects everyone in society, not just those at the bottom. At almost every point in the income scale, statistically you will tend to be healthier than those below you and less healthy than those above you.
This is only a very brief summary of The Spirit Level‘s argument – and those of you still muttering about “correlation” and “causation” are referred to the book, or at least the Equality Trust’s evidence section and FAQs – but it helps demonstrate the essence of Wilkinson and Pickett’s central claim: that inequality matters, matters perhaps more than any other factor, and that it matters to everyone, not just the poorest.
In the posts that follow I propose to look at a couple of questions which flow out of this: first, what is the UK’s current record on inequality, and second, how is that inequality has these negative effects across such a range of social issues?