Equality really is better for everyone

‘Fairness’ is back at the heart of British politics, but what does it mean?

Nick Clegg has claimed that measuring fairness on the basis of income alone is ‘nonsense’. Instead he says ‘the kind of fairness this Coalition Government aspires to [is] future fairness, improving the life chances of our children.’ The Spending Review document claims to ‘set out a new vision for a fairer Britain. At its heart is social mobility.’

Social mobility was one of the many measures Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett compared with income inequality in their book The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone. And as with everything else they looked at, they found that amongst developed countries, more equal ones do better: greater equality correlates with higher social mobility. Comparable international data on social mobility is hard to come by, so when the book was published they could only compare eight countries. Since then, data for a further three have strengthened the case.

In his speech lauding ‘future fairness’ Nick Clegg was launching his Fairness Premium – a package of education measures designed ‘to give the poorest students a better start in life.’ The importance of education is one of the few ideas that unites people across societies, and across the political spectrum. It’s good for society, and it’s good for individuals. People with more education earn more, are more satisfied with their work and leisure time, are less likely to be unemployed, more likely to be healthy.

Success in education is strongly determined by family income, so perhaps it is unsurprising that again, when Wilkinson and Pickett looked at the relationship between income inequality and educational attainment, children in more equal countries do better. They found the same result comparing US states. This effect isn’t just confined to children from the poorest backgrounds – in more equal countries it seems like almost all children do better, although the benefits are felt most keenly by those at the bottom.

So in trying to prioritise social mobility over greater income equality, Nick Clegg is missing a trick.

The two are not distinct they are closely linked. Intuitively this makes sense – as the rungs of society’s ladder become further and further apart it becomes increasingly hard for those at the bottom to leap from one to the next, while those nearer the top cling ever-more determinedly to where they are, for themselves and for their children. Indeed, David Cameron seemed to recognise this last year when he said that ‘We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it.’

The Spirit Level describes the effects of inequality among rich democracies on a broad range of health and social problems, far more than just education or social mobility. Indeed, as epidemiologists, the authors began by looking at the relationships between health and inequality, and it was these that led them on to consider other measures of health and social wellbeing. They tested these patterns in two separate test-beds, not only among the rich, developed countries, but also in comparisons of the 50 US states. The picture that emerges is almost identical in both settings and confirm the widely-held intuition that inequality is socially corrosive.

Measures of trust and social cohesion are higher and violence is lower in more equal societies, school children experience less bullying, people have more time for each other and community life is stronger. And similarly, studies show the reason that rates of imprisonment have increased in more unequal countries and US states owes much more to harsher sentencing, than to rising crime rates. Even small differences in inequality seem to make a huge difference to our quality of life – mental illness is three times more common in more unequal countries than in the most equal, obesity rates are twice as high, rates of imprisonment eight times higher, and teenage births increased ten-fold.

In the UK and USA we perform badly and are among the least equal of the rich countries, with the richest fifth earning 8-9 times the poorest fifth. In contrast, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Japan all perform well and are among the most equal countries with a difference of around 3-4 times. By halving our income gap to the level of Scandinavia and Japan we could see dramatic improvements to all our lives.

It might be thought that more unequal societies do worse because they have more poor people, but this is only a small part of the explanation.

Just as health inequalities are not simply differences between the health of the poor and everybody else, but instead go all the way up the social ladder with even those close to the top doing a bit worse than those above them, nor is the impact of inequality confined to the poor. Indeed, you cannot explain such big differences in rates of health and social problems between more equal and more unequal societies by what is happening among the poor. The differences are big because everybody is affected. Greater inequality seems to harm almost everyone.

Where the data allowed comparison of people at each level of income or education or social class between one country and another, it is clear that even the comfortably-off middle class does better in more equal countries. Even well educated people with good incomes will be likely to live longer and enjoy better health, and their children will do better in school, will be less likely to take drugs and less likely to become teenage parents. Everyone will enjoy the benefits of living in a more trusting, less violent society. Although the benefits are much larger lower down the social scale, they are still apparent even among the well-off.

So fairness measured in terms of income is not ‘nonsense’. Improving the life chances of children from poor backgrounds is inextricably linked to closing the gap in income between rich parents and their own. And this isn’t through lowering achievement amongst rich children, because on a whole range of health and social measures, including educational attainment, it seems everyone would do better.

However there is perhaps one area of common ground with Clegg. He dismisses fairness ‘seen through one prism and one prism only…the tax and benefits system.’ And he’s right that lowering the gap needn’t be through redistribution. Japan is significantly more equal than the UK, but achieves this through a more equal distribution of wages, rather than through redistribution of earnings. It seems as though the mechanism for ensuring people’s incomes do not radically diverge is not important, but the cohesiveness of a society in which everyone can participate more equally brings untold benefits.

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