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The importance of equality:
In conversation with Richard Wilkinson
[Transcript for this podcast is found in tab below]
Emeritus Professor of Social Epidemiology, Richard Wilkinson, author of “The Spirit Level”, discusses the importance of equality and how inequality affects us all.
Recommended Citation for this podcast – APA6th
Fronek, P. (Host). (2012, June 28). The importance of equality: In conversation with Richard Wilkinson [Episode 3]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month, Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/the-importance-of-equality/.
Richard Wilksinson on TED - How economic inequality harms societies http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html
Transcription Podsocs 3: The importance of equality: In Conversation with Richard Wilkinson
Thank you to James Attard for this transcription
[musical intro to 00.10]
Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
Tricia: Today I have the pleasure of talking with Richard Wilkson, author of ‘The Spirit Level’. Well Richard welcome to Podsocs.
Richard: Hello, glad to be with you.
Tricia: We just might set the scene for the listeners. I’m in Brisbane, we’re on Skype, and you’re in London.
Richard: No, I’m in York, England. Well in the country just outside York on a dull cloudy day in April.
Tricia: Now Richard we’re going to talk about your research, particularly in relation to your book ‘The Spirit Level’ that you wrote with Kate Pickett.
Tricia: And, social workers work with people who struggle as a result of inequality all the time and certainly very concerned about the structural barriers faced by people and your research throws a lot of light on the subject. What does your book say about inequality? Why is inequality so important?
Richard: Well, in a sense I think what inequality in terms of the scale of income difference is in a society tells us is how steep the social pyramid, or social class hierarchy, is. Basically, what we’ve shown is that with bigger material differences, bigger income differences, between rich and poor that all the problems which have a social gradient, all the problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder become more common across the whole society, not just amongst the poor but even amongst the better off. You get more violence, more teenage pregnancies, worse health, and all those kinds of problems. Inequality seems to make most difference at the bottom of society but even further up. People will do better to live in a more equal society.
Tricia: Which societies came out as most unequal?
Richard: We looked just at the rich developed countries and amongst in our data set countries like Singapore, the United States, Portugal, Britain, those are the most unequal. The measure we were using was simply how much richer the top 20% in each of those countries than the bottom 20%. The more equal countries are basically the Scandinavian countries, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands, and Japan. Those have about half the amount of inequality in terms of the gap between the top and bottom 20%. Sorry, I should also say that we checked out all our work by looking at it again in a separate test bed. So we looked at these rich developed countries and then we repeated it all looking at the 50 American states to see whether inequality had the same effect there. The picture is very similar whichever context you’re looking at.
Tricia: And, is that related to the type of social policy?
Richard: I think that much the most important aspect of social policy is income maintenance. I think that is more important than the various services dealing with different problems once they’ve been created. Although services are extremely important, they really pick up the pieces and you know whether you’re talking about kids with psychological problems at school in need of educational psychologists, or whether you’re talking about drug abuse and drug rehabilitation things, or health services. None of those services are capable of dealing with all the problems that inequality throws up and most of them are very only partially successful. So much more than important than the services is the scale of inequality that creates the problems initially.
Tricia: Reading your book my first thought was it must been your findings, must have been, very challenging for people with particular political perspectives. Such as very strong beliefs in the market economy that that will fix social problems as people get richer.
Richard: Yes, I think, we had several attacks from the far right and it’s odd I was thinking about those and wondering what motivated those people. I read a book from the States called ‘Merchants of Doubt’, which looks at really the attempts to wreck climate science, and work on pesticides, and various different things, that the sort of things that are being attacked often by the same maverick scientists supported by some of the same kind of foundations on the far right. The book concluded what these people are motivated by is a desire to protect a kind of pre-market fundamentalism, that anything that looks as if it might infringe or compromise the free market they will attack. I think that happened with, that’s why they attacked our book. Simply an attempt to suggest almost that we made the whole thing up. Although, all our data comes from, it’s not our data, comes from WHO, World Bank, the OECD, and you know those kind of international organisations, and if they don’t like the data it should be those organisations that they should blame.
Tricia: So it becomes about defending ideology rather than looking at evidence and research, and what that can tell us about societies?
Richard: Yes I think so. Really the criticism were extraordinarily wide of the mark, suggesting that we pick and choose data. For instance, when we have in fact an absolute rule that if our source of data has data for one of the countries we’re looking at then it goes in. We don’t say ‘oh we don’t like that figure we will leave that out’. That would obviously be stupid bias.
So you know there are occasionally figures I’m you know WHO had figure for infant mortality in Singapore which I’ve never believed and I’ve now discovered why Singapore are the most unequal country in our datas et claim such low infant mortality. It’s basically because 25% of the population are migrant workers, the poorest 25%, and they don’t want them to get Singaporean nationality. So they’re not allowed to have babies and they’re not allowed to get married. They have a health check every 6 months and if they’re pregnant or married they get sent home. What they’re doing is taking out a section of the population where you’d expect the highest infant mortality and just removing it from the picture. But you know just as an example although we didn’t believe that figure, because it’s what WHO has for Singapore it goes into our analysis. There’s no picking or choosing of any kind.
One thing I should say is the scale of, both the number and scale of the problems related to inequality. As I said earlier they are basically the ones that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder so that includes ill health, both death rates being higher, and mental health being worse. We also look at violence, teenage births, at measures of social cohesion or trust, child well-being, proportion of the population in prison, the drug abuse, obesity, a whole range of problems like that. We find that they are anything from as twice as common in more unequal societies to as much as ten times as common. That is, as I say, because the effects of inequality are not just confined to the poorest members of a society. It’s because we’re all involved in the effects of inequality that the difference is between societies are so big.
Tricia: Richard does that mean we should be focusing more on correcting inequality as opposed to always focusing on the individual and the individual services?
Richard: Yes I’m quite sure that’s true. I remember […] , one of the sort of father figures of social medicine, who was involved in one of the biggest ever attempt to reduce risk factors for heart disease. They spent six years visiting people at home and trying to get them to eat more healthily, give up smoking, take exercise, and the results were absolutely miserable. I remember him saying and of course on the rare occasion we did persuade someone to give up smoking we knew that kids elsewhere in the same town were starting to smoke. The same applies to every single problem, you know drug rehabilitation unit might sometimes get someone off drugs but you know there are other people starting to take them. We have to deal with these background factors that are creating more social problems than any society can really deal with. Of course the services are very expensive but also if you don’t spend your money on making things better you spend them on a in a sort of defensive ways. I mean some US states spend more on imprisonment than on […] are much higher and more unequal societies mainly because those societies have more punitive sentencing sentences become harsher with inequality. There’s a paper called ‘Gallows in America’ which shows, you know, with more inequality you spend more money not only on prisons but also police, more sorts of security things, and so on. So you know if you don’t spend your money on beneficial things you have to spend it defensively like that.
Tricia: Richard you raise some interesting concepts about trust and about intergenerational inequality.
Richard: Yes, I think that one of the really important ways in which inequality affects so many outcomes is by affecting the quality of social relations in a society. That is most often being measured by trust. Trust goes down in more unequal societies, so in our data you find in the more unequal societies only about 15 or 20% of the population feel they can trust others agree with the statement that most people can be trusted, this is stuff from the World Values survey. In a more equal societies, the Scandinavian ones for instance, it rises to 60 or 65%. You know that really affects what the whole social fabric of what the society feels like. If you’ve got to walk home late at night in a big city you feel much safer doing that in one of the more equal societies. Other measures of social cohesion and social capital show the same pattern. I think that you know in more unequal societies there are more dog eat dog societies, people have to fend for themselves, there’s less reciprocity, more violence, less trust. I think the harsher prison sentencing, I mentioned earlier, is mainly well it’s not clear whether it’s more fear up and down the social hierarchy or more punitive sentencing. It’s another indication of the quality of social relations deteriorates with increasing inequality.
Tricia: Was the measure of trust sensitive enough to determine whether it was trust between groups or just trust generally within society?
Richard: The measure of trust we used is a very general one. Do people agree with most people can be trusted. In the United States we used the same question from the American government’s general social survey. Other people have looked at trust and looked whether any changes in inequality or in trust come first in society. If you look at Eric Uslaner’s book ‘The Moral Foundation of Trust’ he shows that changes in inequality lead to changes in trust.
Tricia: Do you think in society where there’s very harsh penalties in imprisonment that there is a focus on the individual responsibility to the exclusion of those structural issues?
Richard: I suspect so but I haven’t ever seen any data on it. I as a tendency that I think social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error, that you blame others. You attribute other’s behaviour not to their circumstances but to their individual characteristics that, you know, rather fit the prejudice view that the poor are poor because they’re lazy and stupid kind of view and the bankers were so rich because they were brilliant. We now know that’s not true.
Tricia: In social work the concept of the old charity model of the haves and have nots is very strong and there is debate I suppose that we’re returning to that sort of conceptualisation in the current political climate. Certainly in Australia it’s been heading that way.
Richard: Yes, I may say that I think when people read our stuff they imagine that income inequality is something, I don’t know, fairly superficial but actually in a sense you need to see it not as a new influence on health, or any other […], but telling you more about the scale of class differences. Really whether the society is a very steep social pyramid or a much shallower social pyramid and that has fundamental effects on the whole social hierarchy. I think it’s helpful really to think about animal social hierarchies when trying to understand this. That, you know, if you want to know about the social behaviour of any animal the first question that should be, that you should ask, does it have a strong ranking system. If it does that will tell you it’s the strong that eat first, that the females will prefer the dominant males as sexual partners, that the dominant males will try to monopolize access to the females, it will tell you that the social structure is held in place by fear and by, you know, the strength of the dominant animals. We have a lot of, well we do have an inherited sensitivity to social status, social position, to why it rankles so much to feel you looked down on, regarded as inferior, disregarded, excluded, all those kind of things. They bother us so much because we have an evolved sensitivity. We’re now discovering, this is relevant to your earlier point about individual versus contextual factors, that the contextual factors, social status, affects gene expression. So not that your genetic code has changed by where you are in the social structure but the effects of your given genetic code on the development of children in early life is really important. Basically that’s early sensitivity in childhood is about, and it exists in endless different species, there’s that early sensitive period in life and in human beings it’s about adapting to the kind of world you’re growing up in. You know do you have to fight for what you could get, watch your back, learn not to trust others because you’re, you know, in the world you’re growing up in everyone is rivals. Or are you growing up in a society where you’ll depend on reciprocity, on cooperation, on mutuality, where empathy is important, and that needs a quite a different emotional cognitive development. I think that one has to regard parenting as partly a system for, if you like, passing on the adult experience of adversity. There was an awful case in this country a few years ago where three women were taken to court for making their toddlers, two and three year olds, fight, punch each other in the face, kick each other in the ground, that kind of thing. Apparently they showed no remorse when in court and one of the women said it’s important to toughen them up. That was their experience at the bottom of society, you know the qualities that you need to survive. So the different societal structure of inequality, how important social hierarchy and social status are, has very important effects on development, on individual characteristics.
Tricia: That really highlights for me the importance of early intervention. Certainly if we look at child protection and compare, say, Australia and Norway. Some work has been done by Karen Healy here in Australia that has compared the two and we’re very reactive to child protection whereas Norway put a lot of their energies into early intervention.
Richard: Yes, I think early intervention is very important indeed but it’s not all over after childhood. Even these changes in gene expression can be reversed later on. So, I think in a way to understand the effects on inequality one needs a kind of true stage model, you need to think what it’s like when young people come on the labour markets and find there’s high unemployment, or just very low wage, or crap jobs. Which will mean you will get a rise in violence in the young men and a rise of teenage births amongst women, both closely related to relative deprivation. Then, you know, it is how those things are passed on to their children as they become parents, both of the adult experience of the social environment and how that gets into childhood.
Tricia: Richard when you, in your book, you talked about Sweden and Japan having very different approaches to social policy but still had low inequality within those societies.
Richard: Yes, there are a lot of different ways to becoming more equal and it just happens that among the most equal countries in our dataset are Sweden and Japan, and they do it in quite different ways. Sweden has very large differences in pre-tax earnings and they redistribute closing the gap by high taxes, generous welfare state, and so on. Japan does it quite differently, they start off with smaller differences in earnings before tax, and they have lower taxes, a less generous welfare system. We find rather the same contrast amongst some of the American states that do well, both Vermont and New Hampshire do well. Although there is no American state like Sweden, Vermont is a bit more in that direction. Whereas New Hampshire has amongst the lowest taxes of any state in the United States, so does very little redistribution but its income differences before tax are smaller. To us it looks as if it doesn’t matter how you get your greater equality, as long as you get there somehow seems to confer the benefits.
Tricia: So in terms of social work and thinking about what you’re saying about early childhood, young people, the social problems, the inequality. What do you think we need to be most aware of?
Richard: Well, I think that for me the surprising thing is that somebody else didn’t write our book 10 years earlier. I think we have spent so much time in countries around the world doing research on all these social problems, health problems, at the individual level and being blind to the differences between countries which suddenly throw up the very powerful structural factors. It seems to me that the message, you know, a lot of people do talk about reducing the scale of income differences to deal with health inequalities. It’s not just health inequalities it’s the overall health of the society, but it’s not just health it’s endless other outcomes. You know, you don’t have to be an altruist to want to reduce inequality it’s not simply about the middle class being altruistic on behalf of the poor it’s about a better life for all of us. Nobody wants to live in a society with more violence, and more lower trust, and lacking community life, and so on. It really is things that matter to us all and great equality benefits us all, as well as I suspect being, saving a lot of rather expensive social problems. Do think governments really have to concentrate on this and the paradoxical thing is that people in a sense have known this for hundreds of years, since before the French Revolution, people have had an intuition that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive. That’s basically all the data shows, it shows that intuition is truer than we ever imagined.
Tricia: You talk about corporate power being the elephant in the room and I wonder about the impact of globalisation, those sort of factors, on our inability to address these issues better.
Richard: I don’t think the rise in inequality has to do with globalisation and the more equal societies in our dataset have also been through the same globalisation. Basically, globalisation has been going on since, I don’t know, the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 18th century or before. It doesn’t mean that all societies have had to be just as unequal as each other, the US use to be a more equal society than it is now, Japan use to be a less equal society than it is now, and you know countries change, it’s not determined by globalisation. The modern rise of inequality seems to be the result of the neoliberal economics introduced in the, what, round about 1980 by Raegan and Thatcher.
Tricia: You said that for many societies economic growth has done its work and that’s sort of that perspective isn’t it?
Richard: Yes, if you look at the relationship between, say, life expectancy and GNP per capita across rich and poor countries you’ll see the very rapid rises in life expectancy in the early stages of economic growth but it then flattens out. Not because we’ve got to the end of, or the limits of, human life expectancy, life expectancy is increasing just as fast as it ever has, but it’s loses its relationship with economic growth. So in the rich world we get improvements in life expectancy even without economic growth. The same is true if you look at measures of well-being, or happiness, you find the same pattern of rapid improvements in early stages of economic growth and then, you know, in the rich countries you can have doubling of national income per head and no improvement in happiness or measures of well-being. So I think what that’s showing is a sort of a diminishing returns to economic growth. Economic growth is what’s transformed the quality of our lives, but it’s not going to do that forever. In poorer countries it remains important to have higher material living standards because many people don’t have access to basic necessities but fast in the rich world have more and more of everything makes less and less difference. That’s what it really is telling us and that’s a very important thing to recognise as we become more aware of the environmental problems of economic growth.
Tricia: Richard, I think your book provides a lot of evidence or support that can assist with policy development in social change and I think that’s very important from a social work perspective. Richard you’ve established ‘The Equality Trust’, can you tell us a bit about that organisation?
Richard: Yes, we established that with help from ‘The Joseph Rowntree charitable trust really to make the evidence of the effects of inequality more accessible publically. So, you know, what we say is we campaign by making people, through education, making people more aware of the evidence. We also have ideas about, I don’t know, local groups and what sort of things people can do to campaign, you can also download slides showing the effects of inequality that would be very glad if anyone wanted to use, you can look at our data, or sorts of stuff there. The address is www.equalitytrust.org.uk.
Tricia: We might put a link to that on the website Richard.
Richard: Yeah, I think that if you search for equality trust on Google it’s the first thing that comes up.
Tricia: Thank you very much for giving us this time. I know everyone will listen very keenly and we thank you very much.
Richard: Okay, well I’m glad to able to do it and thank you for helping pass the message on.
Tricia: Thank you.
[Musical outro 30.09 to END]
Interview ENDS: 30.37