A recent report using income data from the 2010 Census drew attention to a harsh aspect of wealth inequality in the United States, already among the highest in the world. The number of Americans living in poverty increased to 46.2 million, and 6.7 percent crossed the threshold into “deep poverty.” Without food stamps and unemployment insurance, an additional 6.8 million would have fallen below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent continue to command a fifth of the nation’s income, and for an increasing number of Americans, the dream of middle-class security is ever more elusive.
The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, which has sold more than 100,000 copies since its 2009 publication in Britain, offers insight beyond the bare facts of the census income data. Our national response to the hardships caused by the market crisis of 2008 has been to apply more of the same economic system—subsidize the banks in the hope this gets the economy growing again. But as Wilkinson and Pickett argue from their opening pages, “Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich countries, largely finished its work.” Once wealth rises past a certain level, the benefits to life expectancy, health, and happiness stabilize, and then stagnate.
The crux of The Spirit Level is that the best measure of a country’s well-being is not GDP or wealth overall, but its distribution of wealth. Of the developed countries (the focus of the book), those with highest income inequality—the United States, Britain, and Portugal—have the lowest levels of social “goods” such as educational achievement, long life expectancy, gender parity, and trust among neighbors. They have the highest rates of mental illness, obesity, violent crime, teen pregnancy, and incarceration. When the lion’s share is captured by a few, and the rest divide the remainder into increasingly tiny slivers—the “deep poverty” of more than 20 million Americans—social ills rise. Take the statistics on violence: along with the Scandinavian countries, Japan ranks highest on income equality; it also has the lowest homicide rate in the developed world. By contrast, the United States suffers from the highest murder rate, 64 people per million annually.
It is not only those at the bottom of the ladder who suffer. One of the remarkable insights of The Spirit Level is that income inequality affects all social classes, not just the poor. The most unequal countries have rates of mental illness five times higher than the most equitable—for everyone. A baby born in the United States is twice as likely to die before reaching its first birthday as a baby born in Japan; average life expectancy for an American is three years shorter than for a Swede. The authors emphasize that subtracting the poor from the analysis does not change the score. “Inequality,” they suggest, is “like a pollutant spread throughout society.”
It also seeps into the spirit. Some social ills, notably poor educational performance and violence, correlate with an individual’s relative income level rather than absolute wealth of a society. As record numbers of Americans watch their class status fall, they tend to compensate in unhealthy ways—from prioritizing conspicuous consumption over basic needs (the “affluenza” virus) to acts of violent crime. Though the United States still has a high average income compared to other countries, its inequality ensures that Americans score low on almost every measure of psychological well-being.
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Wilkinson and Pickett’s work is germane in this moment of crisis because it gives us something to work toward: reducing inequality. Their evidence is robust, and almost inarguable. Graph after graph, generated with data from the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and all fifty U.S. states, show the same correlation: Where income inequality is high, social ills are all but inevitable. Reducing inequality—not increasing growth—must form the centerpiece of any effort to improve well-being.
As Wilkinson and Pickett recognize, change must be political, institutional, and individual. Their suggestions for moving forward are too wide-ranging to offer a clear template for change—their analytical strength lies in their area of expertise, public health—but the central message is crucial: We must reduce inequality. If we can achieve that, our reward will be a higher spirit level, for everyone.
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