Skip to site content

“The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger”

Jesus taught us to pray and so we do, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Is God’s will being done to strengthen society and bring God’s kingdom on earth? Are we any closer now to the kingdom of God on earth than we were 2,000 years ago?
Conventional wisdom and previous studies blame social ills on poverty. Now exciting new research, published in the book “The Spirit Level,” finds that most social problems are caused by income inequality, and it adversely affects us all, rather than just the rich or just the poor.

 

 

Using data from the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation and other respected sources, British public health researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett studied 23 developed countries with populations of more than 3 million for which income inequality statistics were available and all 50 of the United States. The 23 developed countries were selected because they all satisfy the basic needs of their citizens and additional average wealth does not produce greater well-being.
Through a comprehensive survey of hundreds of peer-reviewed studies and their own analysis, the authors draw a compelling causal relationship between income inequality and such social ills as obesity, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, lack of trust in our neighbors, low educational achievement, mental and physical illness, violence, crime and limited opportunity.

Scatter graphs with trend lines show the statistically significant correlations between numerous measures of social health and income inequality. There’s a consistent pattern: Countries and states with greater income inequality also have a greater incidence of social ills. Their analysis goes on to show that the relationship is not haphazard, but that income inequality causes social ills. They also show that those ills affect everyone at every income level across the board.

The causal connection the authors offer is our very human tendency to compare ourselves with others. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “‘Tis very certain that each man carries in his eye the exact indication of his rank in the immense scale of men, and we are always learning to read it.”

That tendency leads to anxiety, shame, pride, guilt and insecurity. Those emotions cause physical symptoms and behavioral problems, too. Where income disparities are smaller, the emotions and acting out are less intense. “Greater inequality seems to heighten people’s social evaluation anxieties by increasing the importance of social status,” say the authors.

It’s not hard to imagine the causes of anxiety for the poor. “Will I have enough to eat today? Will I still have a home next month? When will I be laid off? How am I going to pay for my child’s health care? Will I be wounded in a drive-by shooting?”

It’s more difficult to imagine the causes of anxiety for the rich. “Will I be able to lose 10 pounds so I’ll look good on the beach this spring? Do I have adequate security systems for my vacation homes? Will one of those employees I laid off today come after my family and me? Who is the best plastic surgeon to do liposuction and Botox? Do I have enough bodyguards? Which preschool program will put my child on track to go to Harvard or Yale?”

Real damage to the rich occurs in the form of greater substance abuse, mental illness, crime (especially white-collar investment crime), violence and stress-related physical illness than occurs in more equal societies.

The authors don’t propose to reduce social ills via doses of anti-anxiety drugs in the water supply, but rather through public policies that reduce income inequality by increasing minimum wages, improving worker rights, limiting top salaries to a multiple of the average worker’s wage, increasing employee ownership of companies, and progressive taxation. Many previous studies have looked narrowly at specific ills and proposed policies to address those problems in isolation. That treats the symptoms, but not the root cause.

As you might expect, a book with such a sweeping critique of the status quo has drawn its share of detractors. The attacks, the authors’ rebuttals and more information are available at the Equality Trust website.

If we are committed to following the example of Jesus, who challenged the dominant culture of his time with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, this book offers a compelling diagnosis of our cultural ills and evidence to support a sustained movement for greater equity and more opportunity to achieve our highest human potential.

Wilkinson and Pickett do not claim to have all the public policy answers to reduce or eliminate the damage done by income inequality. Instead, they call on public policy experts and economists to accept the diagnosis and participate in a robust, ongoing dialogue to find effective treatments for the sake of us all.

Bill Howell is the Middle Tennessee organizer and lobbyist for Tennesseans for Fair Taxation. He attends Edgehill United Methodist Church in Nashville.