For richer, not for poorer

Richard Wilkinson

This article originally appeared in the London Guardian, 11 September 1996

Memo to: All cabinet and shadow ministers
From: Richard Wilkinson
Subject: The cost of inequality in society

As you are aware, the proportion of the population living in relative poverty almost tripled between 1979 and the early 1990s.The numbers living on less than half the average income rose from 5 to 14 million. I am worried that few, if any, of you understand the significance of this trend.

Your responses vary on the government side, from the appallingly dismissive belief that only absolute poverty matters, or that growing inequality is regrettable but necessary to economic growth, to the official opposition view that any effective action must wait till we can afford it. But recent research findings leave no room for such politically convenient opinions: none of these views are now tenable.

New evidence makes three important points clear. First, that increases in social cohesion, which we all regard as desirable, are largely dependent on reducing the size of income differences. Second, that narrower income differences and increased social cohesion play a very powerful role in reducing not only violent crime, but also national death rates from some of the most important diseases. Third, regardless of what may have been true in the past, in modem economic life narrower income differences are associated with faster - not slower - economic growth.

The four recent studies of the relationship between economic growth and income inequality, despite using data for different periods and groups of countries, show that countries with narrower income differences have faster economic growth, higher levels of investment and faster increases in productivity. The two studies addressing the question of whether greater equality leads to faster growth or vice versa, both found that greater equity led to faster growth.

Understandably, Britain's long-term growth has failed to improve as income differences have widened. The World Bank reported that all eight of the rapidly growing Asian economies narrowed their economic differences between 1960 and 1980.

Perhaps more surprisingIy, research which was initially stimulated by growing health inequalities has now shown that wider income differences exert a powerful influence on national mortality rates. Age for age, death rates are four times as high in the poorest areas of Britain as in the richest, and three times as high among the most junior as among the most senior civil servants working in your own government departments - think about that next time you are in the office. This is not primarily because of smoking and misguided dietary choices.

More important are the various stressful effects of low socio-economic status and subordinate institutional positions. In particular, the lack of control over events both at home and at work. the effects of insecurity and socio-economic stress on family life, and lack of social support from friends and the community more widely, tend to increase the proportion of the population living with chronic stress. This is now known to lead to rapid ageing as well as susceptibility to infections and degenerative diseases including heart problems. (You can see some of the evidence in a Channel 4 Equinox documentary, The Great Leveller, this Sunday).

Overall, there is a remarkably strong relationship between a society's average death rates and the amount of inequaIity. Nine different research groups have shown that more equal societies are healthier. In addition to the tendency for most main causes of death to be more common in more unequal societies, an important indication of the underlying social processes is the dramatic percentage increases in deaths related to alcohol, accidents and homicide. New analyses of data from the 50 United States show that violent crime is much more common in the most unequal states and homicide is eight or nine times as common. These unmistakeable signs of social disintegration parallel the international evidence.

The importance of social cohesion in this relationship is illustrated by a number of examples, described in detail in my book Unhealthy Societies: The afflictions of inequality. A case in point is the dramatic improvements in life expectancy which took place - paradoxically - during the two world wars. Despite the diversion of production from consumption to armaments and the overstretching of medical resources to treat wounded soldiers, life expectancy increased two or three times as fast as normal between the world wars. The sense of camaraderie was partly the effect of a common enemy, but it also reflected the dramatic reduction of income differences and deliberate policy of sharing the burden fairly in order to gain the widest support for the war effort. Several other epidemiological studies of health and egalitarian societies show that social cohesion provides the link between them.

The two studies which have used quantitative measures of social cohesion and related them to income distribution show correlations suggesting that at most two-thirds of the differences in social cohesion reflect differences in income distribution. In perhaps the most important empirical study of social cohesion, Robert Putnam wrote: 'Equality is an essential feature of the civic community.'

As we move towards an election, I urge you to recognise that social environment is now probably the most important determinant of the quality of life in modern societies. The effect of inequality on death rates is merely an indication of how profound its corrosive social effects are. Rather than pretending that more police, prisons, social workers or doctors can pick up the pieces, let us go beyond the rhetoric of communitarianism and tackle the problems of income differences at root.