The Spirit Level: Exposing deeply rooted societal inequity and inequality

‘The Spirit Level’ author and epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson: “We have to be very vigilant against all the ways that hate is built up”

Richard Wilkinson’s work is dedicated to exposing deeply rooted societal inequality and to showing how much better off people are when living in a more equal society. With ‘The Spirit Level’, the book he co-authored with his colleague Kate Pickett, he brought the results of that work to a mass audience. Wilkinson told INSP about the growing problem of inequality and what street papers are doing to combat it.

By Tony Inglis

“I find this to be quite a daunting audience. I normally speak to academics and people who are more detached from the real world. But I think many people here know the practicalities of what I’m talking about better than I do.”

This is the opening gambit of Richard Wilkinson – renowned social epidemiologist and author of the best-selling book ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’ – as he addresses a room packed full of delegates from street papers across the world. In his book, which was an unlikely hit when it was released in 2009, Wilkinson, along with co-author Kate Pickett, presents cold, hard and unsettling data showing how income equality is deeply influenced by societal factors. In the intervening eight years, he has taken his findings to all manner of communities and audiences, giving TED talks and responding to detractors. The book’s influence – and popularity – does not seem to have waned, and the uncomfortable truths borne of his research remain startlingly prescient.

“Almost everything we put in ‘The Spirit Level’ has now been confirmed by other researchers in different countries. And not only have the relationships we’ve shown – whether between violence and inequality or low social mobility and inequality, or many others – been confirmed, but we can now see clearly what we call the pathways, the social processes, that connect inequality to worse outcomes. I think we feel that the overall structure of what we were showing in ‘The Spirit Level’ is right. It fits together too coherently to be wrong.”

Wilkinson says that, despite this, he still believes that apathy shown towards the academic community is a reflection of certain sections of the political establishment, rather than of the general public as a whole. “The right has always disliked the social sciences. They are much keener to dismiss evidence and experts because academic research is predominantly, if not always, progressive. It pushes against them.

“Despite all this stuff about fake news and the lies politicians tell us, people don’t actually just come to the idea that the truth is simply relativistic, believing whatever they want to believe. People still do have a very clear idea that there’s evidence for things and, actually, scientists are trusted better than politicians.”

“Notable figures, like the Pope, Ban Ki Moon [former UN General Secretary] and Christine Lagarde [managing director of the IMF], have all made very strong statements against inequalities. The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) has started to take action on tax havens by getting them to share data with tax authorities. I’m not sure if that will make a significant difference. But when we were writing ‘The Spirit Level’, there was no knowledge or interest or concern in inequality at all. And since, there has been a huge increase in media concern around inequality. I don’t think it’s going to go away until something’s done.”

Wilkinson touched on myriad factors for the rise of societal inequality, but there was one noted omission, picked up on by many members of the watching audience of street paper delegates: what about homelessness?

Wilkinson explains that this was not an oversight. “The scale of homelessness is so difficult to measure. There aren’t many good comparisons. I remember people trying to measure homelessness by visiting all the places in one night where they thought they were likely to find people experiencing homelessness. But to do that well over a whole country, or to find some way of sampling that and get them for different countries – I haven’t seen good figures that would tell you that.”

There may be a lack of scientific research that would allow Wilkinson to present homelessness in the same way as he does the other factors explored in his research, but he is still acutely aware of how it fits in to his findings. “I’m pretty sure that housing problems are worse and, I expect, the problem of homelessness is just the bottom end of the housing problem. And, you know, it’s always people at the bottom who are affected most drastically. Any economic difficulty the rich can find their way out of it. A rich person losing a job doesn’t much matter because they’ll probably get another one, likely being paid more. It’s the people at the bottom who find it difficult.”

He is also adamant in his admiration for the work that street papers do in contributing to righting the wrongs of inequality. “I think street papers do two things. They increase society’s awareness of problems of homelessness and they must do something for the people who sell it. It certainly gives people increased confidence.

“However, you’ve got to deal with the structural determinants of these problems, whether it’s health inequalities or homelessness or whatever, and that’s up to the government. It’s not enough to simply make people feel better about their circumstances while those circumstances remain appalling.”

Wilkinson’s work, and the way it has calcified over time, has left him with an overwhelming feeling of a worsening problem. However, it has not left him feeling helpless, and he leaves me with a glimmer of hope. “You usually try not to be too pessimistic in public and I think the problem is still very worrying. But, there has been a growth of opposition to those who seem happy to allow inequality to continue. We have to be very vigilant against all the ways that hate is built up. There are grounds to be optimistic.”

Courtesy of INSP.ngo

University of York 50th Anniversary.
Professor Kate Pickett and Professor Richard Wilkinson.