I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that we humans in the world are experiencing some serious problems. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, two research scientists working through The Equality Trust in the U.K., have identified the following fourteen problems and one simple solution. When I first read about their work in their book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, I was immediately interested.
The fourteen problems they identified for study include the following:
- Physical health—Too many people die too young from diseases that could be prevented.
- Mental health—Too many people suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental ills.
- Drug abuse—Too many people abuse drugs and many die before their time.
- Education—Too many children leave school too soon and others stay, but do poorly.
- Imprisonment—Too many people are in prison and prison does little good to prevent future crime.
- Obesity—Too many children and adults are overweight and suffer many ailments, including diabetes, as a result.
- Equal opportunity—Too many people feel locked into the lower classes with no way to escape.
- Trust in community—Too many people divide the world between “us” and “them” and fear there is not enough of us and too many of them.
- Violence—Too many people live with the fear of violence, both in their home, in their communities, and in the world.
- Teenage Births—Too many young males and females are bringing children into the world, while they are children themselves.
- Child health—Too many children die young or fail to thrive and grow in health.
- The end of growth—It used to be true that economic growth was good and more was better. But too many people live as through we could grow without limit, even though we live on a finite planet.
- Foreign aid—Too many people suffer because too many rich countries give too little to aid to others.
- Climate change—Too many people in the world face calamity as we continue to heat our planet and weather becomes increasingly weird.
The Simple Solution to Many of Our Most Difficult Problems
After years of research Wilkinson and Pickett have found that all these problems can be improved if we narrowed the income gap between the rich and the poor. The following diagram shows the health and well-being of those in wealthy countries on the vertical axis and income inequality on the horizontal. As you see the USA has the highest level of social problems and also has the highest level of income inequality.
Evidence shows that:
1) In rich countries, a smaller gap between rich and poor means a happier, healthier, and more successful population. Just look at the US, the UK, Portugal, and New Zealand in the top right of this graph, doing much worse than Japan, Sweden or Norway in the bottom left.
2) Meanwhile, more economic growth will NOT lead to a happier, healthier, or more successful population. In fact, there is no relation between income per head and social well-being in rich countries.
3) If the US were to reduce income inequality to something like the average of the four most equal of the rich countries (Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland) evidence shows we could expect the following:
- Trust within the population would rise by 75%;
- Mental illness and obesity would be cut by two thirds;
- Teen births could be more than halved;
- Prison populations could be reduced by 75%;
- People could live longer while working the equivalent of two months less per year.
4) It’s not just people in poorer communities who would do better. The evidence suggests people all the way up would benefit, although it’s true that the poorest would gain the most.
5) These findings hold true, whether you look across developed nations, or across the 50 states of the USA.
Dr. Wilkinson offers a compelling summary of years of research at a recent TED talk.
The Rich Are Getting Richer But It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way
In the introduction to The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Robert B. Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, says “Most American families are worse off today than they were three decades ago. The Great Recession of 2008-2009 destroyed the value of their homes, undermined their savings, and too often left them without jobs.
“But even before the Great Recession began, most Americans had gained little from the economic expansion that began almost three decades before. Today, the Great Recession notwithstanding, the U.S. economy is far larger than it was in 1980. But where has all the wealth gone? Mostly to the very top. The latest data shows that by 2007, America’s top 1 percent of earners received 23% of the nation’s total income—almost triple their 8% share in 1980.”
Martin Luther King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As Bob Dylan reminded us “the times they are a changin.’”
Look over the list of problems such as poor physical health, poor mental health, drug abuse, obesity, violence, etc. Which ones are you most concerned about? Would you be willing to work to reduce income inequality if these problems could be significantly improved?
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