Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

In a brilliant new book called “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger,” authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett compile hundreds of studies to come to this conclusion, “Inequality is the most important explanation of why, despite extraordinary material success, some of the most affluent societies seem to be social failures.” (for more on these studies, go to

In societies where income differences between rich and poor are smaller, statistics show that community life is stronger, there is less violence, health tends to be better and in fact by every indicator, life is better. The authors note that the obvious explanation for this is that there is more poverty in unequal societies and hence more social problems. But, even though it is counterintuitive, they have discovered that in more unequal societies, even middle class people on good incomes are likely to be less healthy, less likely to be involved in civic life, and more likely to be victims of violence. Children of middle class people are less likely to do well in school, more likely to use drugs, and more likely to become teenage parents, than their poorer counterparts in more equal societies.

This book should be of particular use to social justice activists here in the United States. The USA has the highest homicide rates, the highest teenage pregnancy rates, the highest rates of imprisonment and is 28th in life expectancy. The authors say this is BECAUSE it also has the biggest income differences of the 35 richest countries in the world. Even amongst the 50 United States, those with less income inequality do better on all social measurements than the more unequal states. The authors believe we have reached a level of development beyond which further rises in material living standards will not help reduce health or social problems.

What is it about inequality that is so corrosive? In highly unequal societies, people with less wealth are very conscious of having less social status. The authors claim, “The most widespread and potent kind of stress in modern societies centers on our anxieties about how others see us, on our self-doubts and social insecurities….Shame and embarrassment have been called the social emotions: they shape our behaviors that we conform to acceptable norms….” Simply put, a society like the United States, with a long history of racism, classism, sexism has successfully made most people feel bad about themselves. People feel unimportant, unappreciated and not valuable. Everyone wants to earn more, have more, own more--thinking this will make up for being less. But of course it doesn’t. “What hurts about having second rate possessions is being seen as a second rate person.”

There is much that must be done to remedy inequality—policies must change, laws must be revoked, regulations must be returned, but each of us can play a part every day while we work for these larger changes. That part is to express how we value and appreciate each other in our workplaces, among our friends and neighbors. And of course to keep questioning how much each of us needs to OWN, as opposed to how much each of us can steward, enhance and pass on all that we own together.

1 comment:

Mazarine said...

Dear Kim,

Thank you for posting about the Spirit Level. I loved your message on how we must pass on what we have.

I loved it when Bill Moyers highlighted it, so I posted about it in April.

This happens at a larger level, with American society, and it also happens at a more micro level, at nonprofits.

What I see happening in many small nonprofits is that the chief executive is paid a lot of money, and everyone else is not paid a living wage. This is how I see the spirit level showing up in our massive turnover at nonprofits.

There's so little at stake but the egos are so huge, because everyone is getting paid so little. People are ashamed that they have so little, and all for wanting to make the world a better place! They wonder where they went wrong, to sacrifice their economic well being for a cause. It creates so much separation, siloing and rankism at our nonprofits that I'm surprised that anything actually gets done.

By the way, I would love to interview you about strategies for Major Gift Asks for my book and blog, if you're interested.