Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

The Spirit Level

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, the authors of The Spirit Level – Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better – argue that almost every social problem common in developed societies – reduced life expectancy, child mortality, drugs, crime, homicide rates, mental illness and obesity – has a single root cause: inequality.

The authors’ view is that it’s not absolute levels of poverty that create the social problems, but the differentials in income between rich and poor. Their findings suggest that just as someone from the lowest-earning 20% of a more equal society is more likely to live longer than their counterpart from a less equal society, so too someone from the highest-earning 20% has a longer life expectancy than their alter ego in a less equal society.

The piece in today’s Guardian about the book article highlights some random headline statistics from it:

  • The US is wealthier and spends more on health care than any other country, yet a baby born in Greece, where average income levels are about half that of the US, has a lower risk of infant mortality and longer life expectancy than an American baby.
  • Obesity is twice as common in the UK as the more equal societies of Sweden and Norway, and six times more common in the US than in Japan.
  • Teenage birth rates are six times higher in the UK than in more equal societies;
  • mental illness is three times as common in the US as in Japan;
  • murder rates are three times higher in more unequal countries.

Some of these statistics would probably warrant further investigation.  When it comes to obesity is it inequality or differences in diet that matter most?  Is mental illness more likely to be identified in the US than in Japan?

The authors argue that that countries such as the US, the UK and Portugal, where the top 20% earn seven, eight or nine times more than the lowest 20%, scored noticeably higher on all social problems at every level of society than in countries such as Sweden and Japan, where the differential is only two or three times higher at the top.  There are links here to Polly Toynbee’s book last year suggesting that the UK remains a country marked by inequalities.  And the recent furore over Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension, suggests this is an issue people care about.  There’s more information on the Equality Trust website.


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Last night I attended MORI’s annual ‘End of Year Review’.  The event which was very well attended provided an opportunity to look back at the events of 2008 in the company of Ben Page, Polly Toynbee (The Guardian) and Adrian Boulton (Political Editor, Sky News). You can watch the presentations and discussion on line at the policy review tv website.

Ben Page kicked things off in his usual insightful and lively way with a presentation  looking back at the key events of 2008 and what MORI’s social research suggests about switches in public opinion.   Perhaps not surprisingly a majority of the public (55%) now cite the economy as among the key issues facing the country, compared with around 10% at the start of the year.  After a long period when the economy hasn’t been a big issue it is now centre-stage.

Ben talked about the bounce in popularity that Gordon Brown and the Labour Party has received since the banking crisis but pointed out that the position at the end of the year is back where it was in January.  He predicts that while it isn’t impossible for Labour to win a fourth term, it remains unlikely.

David Cameron’s talk of a ‘broken society’ appears to chime with public opinion.  63% of people surveyed by MORI think British society is broken, citing issues like crime, binge drinking, dysfunctional families.  84% of people surveyed including most young people themselves feel young people have too much freedom and not enough discipline (up 12% since 1997)

With regard to climate change, an increasing number of people accept they have a part to play in tackling it.  60% acknowledge the need to go further than recycling and home energy saving measures but only 13% are prepared to make radical changes in what they buy and how much they fly and drive.  The challenge here, Ben suggests, is leadership – government rather than offering exactly what people wants, needs to persuade and lead a fractious public at the same time.

Ben suggested that the role of government was likely to be a key issue in the next few years.   At a time when the US appears to be moving towards a more interventionist model of federal government after 8 years of George Bush’s neoconservatism, possibly in the UK public opinion is turning in the other direction, with only 20% of people believing the state should take responsibility and protect people from their own mistakes.  Ben suggested that what the public actually want is government that can be enabling, paternalistic and nudging all at the same time.

MORI’s end of year report includes information on empowerment, drawn from their report, Searching for the impact of empowerment published earlier in the year.  MORI’s view is that while empowerment is important, ‘it is no guarantee of overall satisfaction, or improved quality of life.’  MORI’s analysis suggests that feelings of influence are more important than actual involvement in local activities.  This measure of subjective empowerment is more related to positive perceptions of services and the area.

After Ben’s presentation, Polly Toynbee spoke about her new book, Unjust RewardsThe book’s central premise is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and that this widening gap is tearing apart the fabric of our society. 

Adam Boulton suggested that 2008 as well as being a very turbulent year may in retrospect be seen to mark the end of an era.  His view was that since 1980 both the US and the UK have enjoyed a period of low tax, free market economics and embarked on a foreign policy he characterised as ‘libertarian interventionism’.  But now with the recession and the election of Barak Obama, his view is that we are now entering a new era.  He also suggested that the days of the folksy style of leadership which he felt both Tony Blair and George Bush exemplified were now behind us, with Obama heralding an age of ‘cooler’ leadership.

All in all, a very interesting evening.  If you want to impress/lose friends, you might want to use the following phrase mentioned twice by Ben Page.  Apparently the ability to believe in two completely contradictory opinions is called ‘cognitive polyphasia’.  Try to work that into the conversation over the Christmas turkey!

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