Fighting inequality could accomplish far more to reduce violence and unrest and cost less than imprisoning ever-larger numbers of the poor.
By Michael Borrelli
Published August 11, 2011
As fires burn and looters run amok across the UK, speculation abounds as to the root causes of the shocking violence. Though the civil disorder that has spread from London was initially triggered by the police killing of a 29-year-old father of four, it is hard to imagine that the memory of Mark Duggan is well served by these waves of violence.
To some observers, the source of the mayhem is obvious. Since his coalition government was elected last year, British PM David Cameron has embarked on an austerity program that has aggressively cut services, including social welfare programs that many Britons rely upon.
Cameron, meanwhile, has pinned the blame on a culture of entitlement and lack of personal responsibility that has apparently reached an ignition point.
Rhetoric aside, the arguments made by those claiming the UK's economic problems are to blame carry much more empirical weight. As with Egypt and Tunisia, two other countries that witnessed revolutions led by legions of unemployed and disenfranchised youth, the unrest in the UK is more likely the result of economic policies that have widened the gap between elites and those just struggling to get by.
It was mere coincidence that as London burned I was deep into one of the best non-fiction texts I have ever read. Published in 2009, The Spirit Level (Bloomsbury Press) by British researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is available at the HPL, and is a fascinating study of how socioeconomic inequality acts to tear societies apart.
This exhaustively researched book is built on a solid academic foundation, yet written for a mass audience. Its premise is as simple as it is powerful: using dozens of empirical studies by social scientists, economists and epidemiologists, Wilkinson and Pickett draw an indelible link between inequality and nine different social problems that plague Western society.
In chapter after chapter, the authors demonstrate that social dysfunction is not only correlated with, but is likely caused by large gaps in income within countries. From murder rates to teen pregnancy, mental health problems to mortality rates, socio-economic inequality (as measured by the ratios of income garnered by the top and bottom 20% of earners) predicts the prevalence of social problems with a remarkable consistency.
The authors convincingly argue that the gap between rich and poor, not average income or absolute poverty levels in a society, is the main culprit. A case in point is the effect of income on life expectancy.
Using readily available, official data, the authors show that a baby "born in one of the poorest western democracies, Greece, where average income is not much more than half of that of the USA," and where the government spends less than half as much on health care, has a life expectancy of 1.2 years longer than an American baby (pp. 79-80).
Moreover, citing peer reviewed studies, Wilkinson and Picket write, "Inequality is associated with lower life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, shorter height, poor self-reported health, low birth weight, AIDS and depression" (p. 81).
Meanwhile, they pile on evidence that conservative attitudes like David Cameron's are hopelessly self-defeating, cheating both the poor and rich alike.
Take crime and punishment as an example. The Spirit Level is not the first book to argue that punitive laws do nothing to lower crime rates, but the book clearly and succinctly explains how this approach to punishment is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Not only does the prevailing trend towards long, punitive prison sentences do nothing to lower crime rates, but "there appears to be a trend toward higher rates of re-offending in more punitive systems (in the USA and UK, re-offending rates are generally reported to be between 60 and 65 percent)" compared to 35-40 percent in less harsh systems (p. 154).
And this analysis doesn't even take into account the massive cost to taxpayers of building, maintaining and staffing prisons! Fighting inequality could accomplish far more, and cost less than imprisoning larger numbers of the poor (lower income folk are much more likely to be imprisoned than those higher up on the social ladder).
Without descending into Marxist polemic or revolutionary paean, The Spirit Level methodically lays out evidence that the growing gap between rich and poor is a recipe for social dysfunction and unrest.
The book also manages to chip away at the idea that "a rising tide lifts all boats" - the convenient myth that general improvements in the economy help everybody. There is an observable ceiling to this effect, and the West reached it two generations ago.
The benefits of development increasingly enrich a small elite class, but as The Spirit Level demonstrates, not even the rich can escape inequality's ill effects.
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