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Public Theology: Equality is Good for Society and Local Community
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Equality is Good for Society and Local Community
A new report by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett shows how life is better for everyone when there is more equality in the distribution of incomes.

By Sam Pizzigati

The vast majority of us experience life at the local level. We care most deeply about things that affect our local surroundings. That reality has always bedeviled analysts and activists who worry about maldistributions of income and wealth - and how these maldistributions are so weighing us down and tearing us up.

The basic problem: Talk about inequality too often comes across as terribly abstract - and distant. To shove inequality onto political center stage, we need to close that distance. But how?

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have an answer. Last year these two eminent British scholars released an amazing book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Us Stronger, that explores how and why nations do better when they share their wealth. Now they've just released an amazing new report that takes inequality all the way down to street level.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The impact of income inequalities on sustainable development in London: A report for the London Sustainable Development Commission. Greater London Authority, March 2010. 52 pp.
If you lived in a society as equal as the world's most equal developed nation, what would life in your community be like?

Say you lived in the United States or Britain, the world's two most unequal major developed nations. If incomes in the metro area where you live were suddenly to narrow, would you relish life any more than you do now? Would the air you breathe be any cleaner? Would you be less fearful about your family's future?

Over in London, an official city agency, the Sustainable Development Commission, recently put questions like these to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, the two British scholars who just may be the world's most insightful experts on how inequality affects us.

Wilkinson and Pickett have just responded to the London Commission's queries, in an intriguing plain-spoken report only a few dozen pages long.

Londoners today, the two scholars note, live in one of the developed world's most unequal cities. If they lived instead in a society where income gaps had narrowed - to the developed world average - the number of violent or mentally ill people around them "would dramatically reduce."

If Londoners lived in a society where income gaps had shrunk to their level in today's most equal nations - Japan, Sweden, Norway, and Finland - the impact would be even more striking. London, note Wilkinson and Pickett, "would be transformed not just for the poor, but for the vast majority of the population."

In that much more equal London, the Wilkinson-Pickett study details, a typical middle class family would find its local community "more cohesive" and less violent. The parents would live longer and healthier, with less obesity. Their children would be less likely to become teen parents or drug users.

We're not talking "slightly less" or "slightly more" here. We're talking, the Wilkinson and Pickett data make clear, king-size changes.

One example: Mental illness affects 17.9 percent of today's Londoners. If London's income gaps were to narrow to Japanese or Nordic levels, that rate would likely drop by more than two-thirds, to 5.6 percent. Obesity would drop by more than half, teenage births by three-quarters.

But the most striking change - were London to suddenly become much more equal - would probably come in simple, basic interpersonal relationships. On the streets of London today, less than a quarter of Londoners, 23 percent, say they trust other people. If Londoners trusted each other at Japanese and Nordic levels, that trust rate would nearly double, to 42.6 percent.

Why do narrow gaps in income usher in safer, healthier, more cohesive societies? Wilkinson and Pickett take the time, in these pages, to dive into inequality’s dynamics. They probe into everything from why people in unequal societies tend to be so much more sensitive to slights — and trigger-happy — to why business leaders in more equal nations look more kindly on environmental regulations.

Amid all the data and dynamics, Wilkinson and Pickett take care to never lose sight of their paper's underlying purpose: to show how narrowing income gaps would improve the lives of Londoners at every income level.

The two scholars have achieved, in the process, something of even broader importance. They have created an analytic model that can be applied to any deeply unequal locale. They have given the world outside London a tool for turning inequality from a vague abstraction into an easily recognizable - and challengeable - "social pollutant."

"If income differences can widen," Wilkinson and Pickett note at one point, "they can also narrow."

After reading these pages, you'll want to help start that narrowing along.

This article appeared in Too Much, published by the Institute for Policy Studies

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Date Added: 4/5/2010 Date Revised: 4/5/2010

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