Greater equality is better for everyone: Richard Wilkinson

Call it Unequal Canada -- the national tour. British professor and epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson has packed his first visit to Canada with public meetings, and private sessions with senior government officials and community leaders. His message is powerful, yet simple: Greater equality is better for everyone.

"It's not just the poor, but everyone is worse off in unequal societies," said Canadian statesman Ed Broadbent as he introduced Wilkinson for his sold-out Toronto presentation on Dec. 10. "More equality, not more growth, matters."

Wilkinson delivers the equality message in a quiet manner, filling the screen with slides that track the relationship between equality and health and social issues in dozens of countries around the world, including Canada. He has authored numerous books and scholarly articles, including his latest, The Spirit Level, which has sold more than 100,000 copies. 

He doesn't just theorize about issues. Along with his co-author Kate Pickett, he has created the Equality Trust, which maintains an active on-line campaigning presence.

While he has the air of an unassuming academic, Wilkinson has been the target of a concerted campaign by a handful of right-wing interests who are seeking to blunt his work. Britain is one of the most unequal countries in his international survey (the United States is consistently the worst), and the current coalition government's attacks on community and social programs is sure to make a bad situation worse.

Wilkinson and Pickett's scattergraphs have become very political in the U.K. They challenge the dominant political ideology that cutting the deficit by slashing social and community initiatives is the only, and the best, policy option.

Canada ranks roughly in the middle of Wilkinson's global ranking, but he delivers an important warning: Much of his data was collected several years ago as he was preparing his manuscript, and more recent numbers show that Canada is moving quickly towards greater inequality. Other international surveys, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's 2008 report called Growing Unequal confirm growing inequality in Canada.

As an epidemiologist, Wilkinson has collected a large amount of social, health and economic data from a number of countries. Some countries, and some regions within countries, suffer a higher burden of poor health, obesity, teenage pregnancies, violent crime and other key indicators. The big question is why the national and regional differences.

Income alone doesn't explain the variations. Some countries have lower average incomes than others, but there is no scientifically valid relationship between national income and the index of social /health issues.

The only factor that helps explain the differences is inequality. More unequal countries have higher rates of mental illness, drug abuse and lower life expectancy -- to name just three of the many variables that Wilkinson tracks. The social and health outcomes are not just different between the very rich and the very poor in unequal societies, but right along the income spectrum.

The gradient is a key part of Wilkinson's analysis: It's not just the poor who suffer from inequality. "Almost everyone benefits from greater equality," says Wilkinson, pointing out that even those at the top in an unequal country like the U.S. suffer worst outcomes than their counterparts in the more equal Nordic countries.

While many people believe that absolute deprivation is the dominant concern, Wilkinson says that in wealthy countries like Canada, the U.S. and Britain, it is relative poverty as measured by inequality that is the critical factor.

Why is inequality so important? Wilkinson points to three factors that lead to chronic stress which is, in turn, a key driver in affecting personal and population health: low social status, weak social affiliation and stress in early life. Chronic stress is more than a fleeting sense of unease. Wilkinson points to specific physiological changes linked to stress.

Using internationally comparable data to build the evidentiary base to demonstrate that inequality is not only bad for the poor, but for everyone, Wilkinson notes that there are two key ways to reduce inequality and improve population health: at the front end by increasing incomes, or at the back end through taxes and transfers.

He ended his Toronto presentation by calling on the 300-plus people in the standing-room only crowd to campaign for "income democracy" and increased democracy in the workplace.

Resources:

Growing Gap (Canada): http://www.policyalternatives.ca/growing-gap

Michael Shapcott is the director of Affordable Housing and Social Innovation at The Wellesley Institute

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