Tuesday, February 01, 2011

State of the Union? Unbalanced & Sick

From last Thursday's On Point with Tom Ashbrook: http://www.onpointradio.org/2011/01/inequality-societies

American inequality is at towering heights not seen since before the Great Depression. Wealth is packed at the top of the ladder, and dwindling on the rungs below.

The picture naturally makes many uneasy. A new global research effort says we are quite right to worry about it.

In their new book Inequality: The Enemy Between Us, two British epidemiologists say inequality is a public health issue, a national health issue. From crime rates to drug use to teenage pregnancy to heart disease and more, they say, the evidence shows inequality makes countries sick, even the rich.

Inequality: the enemy between us?

By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Excerpt of the Excerpt: Like others, we had been working for some years trying to understand the tendency for health to be better in countries with smaller income differences between rich and poor. There are now around 200 studies of income inequality and health. Other researchers working on violent crime had shown that homicide rates were lower in more equal countries. We started to wonder whether this pattern applied to other health or social problems. To find out, we collected internationally comparable figures on levels of trust, mental illness, life expectancy, infant mortality, prevalence of drug use and levels of obesity, homicide rates and rates of imprisonment, teenage birth rates, children’s educational achievement, and measures of child wellbeing – for each of 21 rich developed market democracies.

To measure inequality we used the ratio of the incomes of the top 20 percent in each country compared to the incomes of the bottom 20 percent. In the more equal countries (Japan, Finland, Norway, Sweden) the top 20 percent have 3.4 to 4.0 times as much. In the more unequal societies (USA, Portugal, UK) they have between 7 and 8.5 times as much. By this measure they are twice as unequal as the more equal countries.

Although people have often regarded inequality as divisive and socially corrosive, that did not prepare us for what we found. The frequency of all these problems was systematically related to income inequality. The bigger the income differences between rich and poor in each society, the worse these health and social problems became. And rather than things being just a bit worse in more unequal countries, they were very much worse. More unequal countries tended to have three times the level of violence, of infant mortality and mental illness; teenage birth rates were six times as high, and rates of imprisonment increased eight-fold.

The sense that inequality is divisive was shown by the fact that in more unequal countries, only about 15 percent of the population feel they can trust others, compared to around two-thirds in the more equal ones. That evidence was supported by relationships with social capital and levels of violence – all showing that inequality damages the social fabric of society.
Although the statistics told us that these relationships could not be dismissed as chance, we thought we should check in a second, independent, test bed to see if the same relationships held true. We looked at data for the 50 states of the USA, asking exactly the same question: did the more equal states, like the more equal countries, also do better on all these health and social problems than the less equal ones?

The pattern was extraordinarily similar. What the evidence shows is a tendency for more unequal societies to be socially dysfunctional right across the board. It is not that one country or state has good health but high levels of violence, or high teenage birth rates but low levels of drug abuse. Instead, the pattern is for most problems to become better or worse together.

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