As a surprisingly direct response to my previous post, the path to a better society may well lie in some incredible research published earlier this year in a book called The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. The book establishes, with alarmingly comprehensive evidence, that economically unequal countries have more of just about every type of social problem.
The book draws on research into 22 developed countries, comparing the gap in income between the richest 20% and the poorest 20%. How the countries rank isn’t the main point of interest (although it looks pretty gloomy for us UK readers) – what’s really remarkable is that the rankings closely reflect how those countries perform in relation to 10 common social issues including crime, teenage pregnancy, mental health, literacy, and trust. I’ll attempt to summarise the crux of the findings in two simple points, but I urge you to read the book yourself and draw your own conclusions, or at least download the Guardian’s excellent visualisation of the book’s data (the origin of the above image) with accompanying summary.
1. Unequal societies have more social problems
Looking at the graphic above, the countries further towards the right hand side are;
– More depressed
– More obese
– Have more populated prisons
– Have up to 10 times more teenage pregnancies
(In total, 10 ‘social problems’ are identified – it’s not just restricted to the above four areas)
2. Poverty alone is not the problem
Inequality doesn’t just affect the poorest. The research reveals how the affluent miss out too. For example, while literacy and death rates favour the affluent in every society, the affluent in unequal societies are not as literate as they are in more equal societies. Being specific, the richest fifth in Finland are more literate than the richest fifth in the UK (identified as one of the most unequal societies of the free world). Neither do they live as long, and are more prone to drug mis-use and mental health issues. The conclusion – it’s not enough to focus on poverty.
So what’s the solution?
In light of this evidence, how do we make societies more equal?
The two of the fundamental routes to greater equality lie in
- redistributing income via taxes and benefits – as is the case in Sweden, for example, and
- reducing the difference at source (i.e. before taxes and benefits are applied to incomes) as is the case in Japan.
Whichever route or combination of routes is applied, what’s clear is that government policy has an overwhelming power to affect income equality. Their success, however, depends on a much greater awareness of the effects of inequality in our society. A cultural shift, and one which needs to be happen among politicians and the public alike.
An awareness campaign is therefore the primary aim of The Equality Trust (set up by the book’s authors), and which looks to be receiving increasing political attention. In calling for the ‘political will’ to reduce inequality, The Equality Trust reveal social factors which will play a key role in affecting change.
“Many people worry about what has gone wrong with modern societies without recognising how many of the problems originate in the effects of low social status and status competition which are exacerbated by greater inequality.”
And there it is. Social status and status competition. Issues whose significance are coincidentally also echoed in a report published by the World Health Organisation focusing on the effects of inequality on mental health (see PDF “Mental health, resilience and inequalities“). The report concludes that “greater inequality heightens status competition and status insecurity across all income groups and among both adults and children”. This may not be a surprise given the evidence discussed (mental health being just one of many social problems that fall foul of inequality), but there is reason to think that the approach to treating mental health issues could hold the key for the other social problems…
In her conclusion that “our mental health is incredibly sensitive to inequalities”, the report’s author, Dr Lynee Friedli, suggests there is “undue focus on individual solutions” to mental health, and that what’s required is a more broad-reaching “social solution”. Just as The Spirit Level describes the importance of social relations, Friedli also believe it comes down to the “a radical rethink” of the kind of society we want to live in. “For all kinds of complex reasons, we cannot adapt to inequality. [Research shows] that our response to injustice is written on our bodies. Those countries in Europe that have huge inequalities have to deal with this at a society-wide level. I’m an advocate of CBT, but no amount of CBT will address this. If we look at the population as a whole, mental health reflects the kind of society we live in.”
For me, Friedli’s observations are fascinating and lead me to the conclusion of this post. She describes individual mental health as a symptom of the health of our society. She gives support of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) in treating individual cases, yet also describes the ultimate futility of any individual solution as long as we refuse to address the health of our society as a whole. It is this that raises the question in my mind as to whether we can use the process of CBT to identify to the root of society’s problems as a whole (to arrive at the question), and then address those issues? If we could, what questions would we need to ask ‘society’ to uncover its flaws, and what would it reveal about the inter-relationship between income inequality and social anxiety – which one is the dominant force in driving the other?
I’m not a CBT professional, so perhaps the next move will be to ask someone who is. But what are your thoughts? Is income inequality the root cause of so many social problems or, since correlation does not imply causation, is there something that drives income inequality?