The Spirit Level – a case for equality

Could we dramatically reduce or even eliminate a vast range of seemingly unrelated social problems, from child abuse and school failure to adult crime and mental illness, simply by reducing the breadth of the income gap between rich and poor in our state or nation?

That’s the question asked, and answered with a “yes,” in The Spirit Level, Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, public health researchers from the United Kingdom. With a wealth of graphed data and analysis, they show that the incidence of nearly any widespread social problem: obesity, drug abuse, teen pregnancy or adult incarceration, correlates with social inequality. You can look at some of their data at their website the Equality Trust.

Over and over they show that less-affluent but more equal nations and U.S. states outperform unequal peers with higher incomes on almost any measure of well-being. They draw on behavioral psychology to explain and support their conclusion that social inequality, not absolute poverty, is the powerful common cause for all of these seemingly separate problems.

That’s why, the authors go on to tell us, that most current responses to social dysfunction are inadequate at best and irrelevant at worst. They call for social policies designed to reduce income inequality, either by reducing pre-tax disparities in wages (as happens in New Hampshire and Japan) or by using taxation and social expenditure (as in Vermont and Sweden).

While more speculative than their diagnosis, the authors propose a movement to share the economic space now dominated by profit-making corporations with alternative economic institutions. These institutional alternatives already exist, in the form of cooperatives, credit unions, employee-owned firms and certainly non-profit organizations (not to mention government). Wilkinson and Pickett suggest that an economy with more space occupied by nonprofit  organizations would tend to restrain top salaries and raise those at the bottom, while also delivering important social benefits at reduced cost to consumers.

That may sound radical by current American standards, but it’s squarely in line with traditional American liberalism (anyone remember Hubert Humphrey?) and European social democracy. The recent recession has made the growing chasm between affluence and poverty in America undeniable. The steady withdrawal of public goods such as public education and decent roads, are just two visible manifestations of steadily growing inequality in American society. Must we get used to this steady decline, or can we work for alternatives?

Our nonprofit clients and colleagues, and many government agencies, struggle valiantly against overwhelming social problems. Their programs have life-changing impact on individuals, but they rarely have the resources or social influence to solve or even significantly reduce the incidence of large social problem like illiteracy, obesity, crime, drug abuse, education. We can blame the victims or apply bandages. Is there another choice?

The Spirit Level challenges us all to take a new political stand in favor of policies that promote equality. And it provides an excellent store of new evidence and analysis to help us get started.

2 responses to The Spirit Level – a case for equality

  1. Pamela Grow

    I’ve been disheartened for years by our growing income inequality. The results are seen in the gross decline in our public education, in public services and even in the food that we eat.

    Thanks for this thoughtful review – this will be my next read.

  2. Sherry Truhlar

    Your review reminds me that we all need to think about the “big picture” as we work day-to-day with nonprofits. We don’t have to all agree on solutions but being reminded that we are all working towards a better outcome is helpful.

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