Living in highly unequal economies like the United States is clearly awful for the poorest in society, but new research suggests it also damages the health and well-being of even the wealthiest among us.
British epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson made a splash in social scientific circles nearly a decade back with “Spirit Level,” a book exploring the many ways in which general welfare and trust declines in deeply unequal settings.
“It’s not just the poor who are affected by inequality, we’re all affected by inequality. Our colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health describe inequality as a social pollutant because it’s like air pollution — you can’t escape it, it’s in the air, we all feel it,” Pickett said during a recent book talk at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
Now the two have written a new book called the “Inner Level,” which focuses on wide-ranging psychological detriments from the experience of stark inequality, including feelings of inadequacy, depression, envy and other negative emotions.
“It’s trying to understand why we have such high levels of distress and misery and lack of well-being in our rich, developed nations,” Pickett said.
Pickett cited a Gallup survey showing a majority of Americans say they are often “paralyzed” by stress, among other factors showing elevated anxiety, which the author showed are similar to those in the United Kingdom and yet stand in sharp contrast to other rich nations that are less unequal.
“When a lot of people think of high levels of mental illness their reaction is to demand more services. But we are public-health professionals and so our approach is that of a preventative approach and we want to understand the causes,” she said.
And while the factors are many, Pickett and Wilkinson kept coming back to a single uniting factor — inequality.
“What the research shows — not just ours but that of hundreds of researchers around the world — is that inequality brings out features of our evolved psychology, to do with dominance and subordination, superiority and inferiority, and that affects how we treat one another and ourselves, it increases status competition and anxiety, anxieties about our self worth, worries about how we are seen and judged,” she said.
Here are five charts from their presentation, spanning both of their books, which help illustrate quite drastically just how deeply entwined inequality tends to be with a wide range of social, health and environmental ills:
The U.S. and the U.K. are in a league of their own when it comes to large, wealthy economies.
Well-being declines as inequality increases — for both children and adults.
People in more unequal countries trust each other less.
Prison populations are much higher in unequal nations.
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