How economic inequality eats away at society

TheStar.com – opinion/editorial opinion
Published On Fri Dec 17 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

By training, Richard Wilkinson is an epidemiologist, a medical scientist who specializes in the causes, distribution and control of diseases.

By nature, he is a sleuth. He follows the evidence, wherever it takes him.

When he could find no medical explanation for the high incidence of illness among people on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, he tested other possibilities.

Did poverty put people’s health at risk? The facts didn’t quite fit that theory. In societies with wide disparities in wealth, the poor did have a disproportionately high rate of morbidity. But in societies with a more even distribution of assets, the pattern faded.

Could inequality be the culprit, then? This time, the dots connected. No matter where Wilkinson looked, those who ranked lowest in the socio-economic hierarchy experienced more health problems than people above them.

For a while, the British researcher was satisfied. He wrote a string of publications documenting the psycho-social causes of poor health.

Then his curiosity reasserted itself. If inequality explained why some people were sicker than others, could it also explain why some societies had elevated rates of drug abuse, violence, illiteracy and teen pregnancy?

He examined the evidence, comparing equitable jurisdictions to those with sharply differentiated “haves” and “have nots.”

He found that the wider the gap between rich and poor:

The higher the incidence of drug addiction.

The higher the dropout rate.

The higher the concentration of adolescent gangs.

The higher the prison population.

The higher the rate of teen pregnancy.

“How could I have been so slow to pull it together?” he asked. “It is surprising someone didn’t write this book 20 year ago.”

The book to which he was referring is The Spirit Level — Why Equality is Better for Everyone. (Its title confuses North Americans. In Britain, a spirit level is a familiar construction tool used to measure the flatness of a surface.)

Wilkinson was in Toronto recently to talk about his research and urge Canadians to spread the message that great extremes of wealth, status and power eat away at a society.

He delivered his pitch last Saturday to a roomful of social service workers. First, he cautioned the audience not to be deceived by the graphs in his book. “It may look as if Canada is in the middle of the pack,” he acknowledged. “But the figures are out of date. (Most of his statistics are five to seven years old.) “You’re rapidly becoming more unequal than most OECD countries”

Having established that Canada has a well-developed case of the inequality disease, he challenged listeners to look beyond conventional remedies such as taxing the rich and giving more benefits to the poor. Those options are not politically feasible right now, he maintained.

Instead, he urged starting small and building public support. “It’s going to take a 10- to 20-yearsocial movement,” Wilkinson said.

One way to draw people in, he suggested, is to raise the question of tax fairness. Nobody likes to see the wealthy use loopholes and offshore accounts to avoid paying their share of taxes.

A second way to generate debate is to create new forms of business owned by employees or investors who see beyond the bottom line. Workers need proof there is a viable alternative to companies run by chief executives who earn 20 times as much as they do.

There is a suppressed appetite for change, Wilkinson insisted. People want to be healthier, less driven, less fearful. They just don’t know how to get off the treadmill.

He knows his message runs counter to the ethos of the times. But he has found audiences on both sides of the Atlantic surprisingly receptive.

“The world is full of closet egalitarians,” he hypothesized half-seriously. “I’m just opening the door of the closet.”

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