Because more equal societies work better for everyone

Frequently Asked Questions

Hasn't this analysis been called into question?
Correlation does not prove causality. What reasons are there for thinking that inequality is the cause of such a wide range of health and social problems?

To suggest that these relationships are causal does not involve a major departure from what we know already. Within countries we know that all the components of our Index of Health and Social Problems are strongly related to social status: the further down the social ladder the more common they become.  The new part of the picture is simply...

What about statistical tests of the relationships between inequality and social problems?

As the book's intended readership was not confined to those with statistical training, statistical significance tests and measures of association were not included.  However, as the book points out, they can all be seen here.

Doesn’t causality go in the opposite direction – more social problems leading to wider income differences?

From time to time changes on income distribution may be triggered by new governments with different philosophies or economic theories.  This happened in a number of countries when monetarism and neo-liberal ideas became common during the 1980s.  Legislation was introduced to weaken trade union powers and changes in taxes and benefits were...

Aren’t these relationships with inequality really a reflection of the benefits of better services in more equal countries?

No. On p. 80 of The Spirit Level we show that there is no correlation between life expectancy and total medical expenditure per head in different countries.  Although medical care is important for many aspects of the quality of life, such as hip and knee replacements, cataract and hernia operations, it looks as if the huge differences in the...

Isn’t it just the small countries that are more equal and do better?

Although some of the more equal countries – such as Norway, Sweden and Finland – have small populations and perform well, there are also small countries like Singapore and Portugal which do particularly badly. And the two countries in our data with the largest populations are the USA and Japan which lie at opposite ends of the inequality...

What about ethnic divisions?

People sometimes wonder whether the countries which do well are more homogenous and have fewer ethnic divisions than ones which do badly. There are several points to keep in mind when considering this.  

First, an international study, which collected data on the ethnic mix in each country found that it did not explain the association...

Are changes in health and social problems over time related to changes in income inequality?

There has been rather little research looking at time trends and the few that there have been are confined to health. However, there have now been something like 200 mainly cross-sectional studies of the relation between income distribution and health at different points in time in different settings.  It is of course impossible that the two...

Wouldn’t reducing inequality also reduce the creativeness, invention and innovation on which progress depends?

Rather than stimulating innovation and progress, great inequality wastes the talents of a large proportion of the population. The evidence shows that it reduces children’s educational performance as well as reducing social mobility. Economic studies of the relationship between the extent of inequality and economic growth rates have mixed...

Why isn’t inequality within small areas related to health and social problems?

Research on relative deprivation has found that if you ask people who they compare themselves with, they usually say it is people like themselves – such as neighbours, friends or relations. People sometimes suggest that income inequality must work through social comparisons, through people feeling out-done by neighbours who perhaps have a...

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