Equality when? A discussion paper.

Bob Hughes
Draft – Friday, 26 January 2007

The damage done to the health of individuals and societies by simple
inequalities of wealth is becoming clearer and clearer, thanks to a
growing body of research that began as recently as the 1970s. Whether
one compares nations, regions, cities, districts or even workplaces, one
finds that the members of less-equal groups have shorter, unhappier and
unhealthier lives than the members of more-equal ones.

Inequality is no longer “just” a philosophical, or a moral issue: it is now
a medical, actuarial and (soon perhaps) a legal issue. If we tolerate huge
gaps in wealth, we condemn some members of our society to entirely
predictable forms of suffering and early death. In the USA as a whole
death comes 16 years earlier for the poorest than it does for the richest.
In Oxford the difference is 6 years. In the UK civil service, the death-rate
is 3 times greater for the lowest grades than it is for the highest.
The impact of inequality is felt by everyone: the rich as well as the poor
(although the poor overwhelmingly bear the brunt of the damage) which
is why apparently-poor but more-equal societies and groups often
outperform the richest (but less-equal) societies on health.

The effects of inequality not only drown out those of other, well-known
factors such as diet, drug and alcohol abuse, and smoking – those factors
(and many others) turn out themselves to be consequences of inequality.
Other consequences include repression of women and minorities,
violence and self-harm, and even environmental degradation (caused by
the excess consumption that goes with inequality).

Inequality is moving to centre-stage, as the most important and
immediate threat to well being that we face. But  unlike other threats,
such as aids, terrorism or global warming, it is one that we can do
something about, even on a local scale and in a fairly short time-frame:
any diminution in inequality is beneficial, and we have a host of metrics
with which to monitor the effects.

Equality when? We need a timetable.

I believe it is time for Trade Unions to move beyond pay-disputes, and
demand absolute equality. There is no reason to demand anything less.
Of course, any reduction in inequality is beneficial – so if the thought of
immediately giving everyone the same pay is too frightening, then we
can take a gentler approach, introducing a maximum wage as well as a
minimum one, adjusting these over time so that they converge in a
certain number of years, and meanwhile devoting as much energy as
possible to reducing and repairing the kinds of suffering that are caused
by inequality.

The important thing is to recognise that inequality and its consequences
are now a choice that we make – and we cannot escape responsibility for
that choice any more. Any group or organisation that continues to
tolerate (or actively encourage) big differences in wealth is damaging
the health of its employees and their familes and communities, in
predictable and very unpleasant ways, and may eventually have to pay
for that damage – just like companies that have poisoned their workers
and neighbourhoods with toxic materials.

Even holding a public debate about this has some effect, because it puts
the creators of inequality on notice that their behaviour is under a
serious new challenge.

The goal, however, has to be equality. All “civilised societies” pay lip
service to it, and all societies that have ever practised it have been
significantly happier, healthier and better for the planet than the ones
that don’t.

Bob Hughes,  Oxford Brookes University, 26/1/2007

Some references:

The Equality Trust, set up in 2009 by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (co-authors of The Spirit Level: why more equal societies almost always do better).

An early landmark was Amartya Sen’s 1981 study of gains in life-
expectancy in poor countries, based on World Bank statistics: “Public
action and the quality of life in developing countries” Oxford Bulletin of
Economics and Statisics 43:287-319

Michael Marmot’s 2 “Whitehall studies” – of life-expectancy in the UK
Civil Service demonstrated conclusively the importance of status for
health: Marmot M. Status Syndrome – how your social standing directly
affects your health and life expectancy. London: Bloomsbury & Henry
Holt New York, 2004.

See also Professor Danny Dorling’s numerous publications: