The Impact of Inequality

Richard G. Wilkinson. The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier. London: Routledge, 2005.

Richard G. Wilkinson. The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier. London: Routledge, 2005.

"Tony Blair said early on that he was not bothered about wealth, only about abolishing poverty. Talk of inequality sounds like the old politics of envy. Equality of opportunity, yes, but equality for its own sake, why?

"Here is the answer. Richard Wilkinson is a professor of social epidemiology, an expert in public health. From that vantage point he sees the world in terms of its physical and psychological wellbeing, surveying great sweeps of health statistics through sociological eyes. He has assembled a mountain of irrefutable evidence from all over the world showing the damage done by extreme inequality. However rich a country is, it will still be more dysfunctional, violent, sick and sad if the gap between social classes grows too wide. Poorer countries with fairer wealth distribution are healthier and happier than richer, more unequal nations.

"Life expectancy in rich nations correlates precisely with levels of equality. So Greece, with half the GDP per head, has longer life expectancy than the US, the richest and most unequal country with the lowest life expectancy in the developed world... [Lowered life expectancy is the result of stress], the stress of living at the bottom of the pecking order, on the lowest rung, the stress of disrespect and lack of esteem. Bad nutrition does less harm than depression.

"The book blisters with research such as this: tests found that subordinate, low-status monkeys had high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which leads to arteriosclerosis. When the high-status monkeys were all put together and low-status monkeys put in another enclosure, all the pecking orders changed. When some previous high-rankers became subordinate they developed all the same physical symptoms, including a five-fold increase in arteriosclerosis within less than two years. Meanwhile some of the low-rankers who suddenly found themselves dominant had sharply dropped levels of stress hormone.

"People, says Wilkinson, are the same. Social status and respect matter beyond anything, and the psychological damage done by being at the bottom is crippling. A survey of Whitehall civil servants found that junior ranks were three times more likely to die in a year than seniors, with a fine sliding gradation from top to bottom according to status...

"It is not primarily five-a-day fruit and veg or obesity that need targeting, but social injustice itself. An orphanage in hungry postwar Germany found that children on the same diet were found to have grown most under the kindest matron and least under the unkindest matron. Psyche matters more than vitamins, all through life" (Polly Toynbee. "Inequality is the real enemy." Guardian Weekly, Aug. 25, 2005: 23).

Colby Glass, MLIS