How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Wellbeing by Prof Kate Pickett & Prof Richard Wilkinson

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson are Professors of Social Epidemiology.  Kate Pickett is Professor of Epidemiology at the University of York, and Richard Wilkinson is Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham after having retired in 2008. Together they wrote the international best seller book ‘The Spirit Level’.

The Spirit Level

The book offers an acclaimed analysis of international data sets which show the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”.

When examining the problems of physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, they found that the greater the difference between the most wealthy and the poorest people in a country, the more significant the problems are.  This reveals the enigma of how rich countries can have the greatest problems.
Where we find wealth concentrated it seems that we also discover the most significant poverty.  An example is if we look at Tower Hamlets in London.  It is one of the richest and poorest parts of Britian.  A Tower Hamlets 2010 Local Economic Assessment states “The very wealthy and the very poor predominate in Tower Hamlets, with little bridging them economically or socially. At its worst, this represents a kind of bi-polar world in which two distinct groups are separated as much by psychological or cultural space as by physical or spatial barriers.”
These income inequalities seem to demonstrate a trickle up effect where the most wealthy can afford to spend money on getting more wealthy be it by paying for cunning tax lawyers to find loopholes, be it by their capacity to own their own infrastructure (i.e. their own property and the property of others), or be it simple that they can afford to start businesses and weather the sunk costs of startup.
Meanwhile, the poorest, with the least resources and opportunities increasingly have to manage lifestyles which are dictated by unscrupulous employers using zero hour contracts which take the value generated by their employees labour but take no responsibility for their healthcare or pension.  Financially disadvantaged people may have no choice but to submit to the demand to work inhospitable hours producing disturbed sleeping patterns which generate stress responses and accompanying health problems.
So, with insufficient incomes and stress levels from precarious jobs which offer uncertain futures, the poor population accumulate various health issues which compound each other and ultimately lead to disability, chronic illness and shortened lifespans.  Poor populations tend to be housed in built up and polluted areas, lack the ability to go on holidays, take part regularly in social-cultural events and are exposed to toxic additives and nutrient deficient food stuffs.
The government produced a document on poverty, income and employment in Tower Hamlets which identified: “The difference in life expectancies between the richest and poorest residents is 11.2 years for men and 6.5 years for women. Furthermore, Tower Hamlets has the fifth highest disabled population in London and around 17% of the population are affected by a long-term illness or disability which prevents them from working, much higher than the national average. Over 12,000 residents of Tower Hamlets receive incapacity benefits, this is a 1,300 increase since 2000. Almost four-fifths of claimants are men.”

Tower Hamlets Time to Act
Click to Download: ‘Tower Hamlets Time to Act, Is Tower Hamlets rich or poor ? Part 1; Poverty, income and employment evidence pack’

Martha Nussbaum explains in her book ‘Creating Capabilities; The Human Development Approach’ that Charles Dickens wrote about the distribution of wealth in his book Hard Times.  Both authors identify the absurdity of how wealth – and ultimately the welfare of people – is related in the financial averages which are manufactured from the collection of statistics.  We know this by the name of GDP, or Gross Domestic Product; the figure which commonly gets banded around as showing how well everyone in a country is living.  Nussbaum writes on page 14:
“Charles Dickens portrayed a classroom in which children were taught the standard approach. Circus girl SissyJupe— who has only recently joined the class is told to imagine that the classroom is a nation, and in that nation there are ‘fifty millions of money.’ Now, says the teacher, ‘Girl number twenty’ (in keeping with the emphasis on aggregation, students have numbers rather than names), ‘isn’t this a prosperous nation, and a’n’t you in a thriving state?’ Sissy bursts into tears and runs out of the room. She tells her friend Louisa that she could not answer the question, “unless I knew who had got the money and whether any of it was mine. But that had nothing to do with it. It was not in the figures at all.”

This is broadly how the narrative of wellbeing (aka welfare) gets articulated through the curtain of such devices as GDP.  This hides a series of poverties and pathologies.

This is precisely the kind of area which Prof’s Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson examined in ‘The Spirit Level’.  Their work in social epidemiology was put to the test and much debate was had about the conclusions which they were drawing.  So, ten years of further research and investigation later they have published the follow up to their landmark study, and they have called it ‘The Inner Level’.
My Fair Edinburgh is an initiative set up recently to extend the work of The Equality Trust which was launched in 2009 by Bill Kerry, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Sponsored by the Mental Health Foundation, Lothian Health Board and The Scottish Mental Health Reseach Network, My Fair Edinburgh brought the Kate and Richard to the city to talk about the research which went into their new book. This was filmed and you can watch the presentation as well as the questions and answers session below:


YouTube player


Here are the slides which go with the presentation so you can examine more closely what is in the video


If you are interested in My Fair Edinburgh and would like to join the Meetup group you can by following THIS LINK.