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Social Health by the Numbers: Wealth Inequality Bad for All

October 20, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The "99 Percent - Occupy Everywhere" movement has spread to hundreds of cities, including several in West Virginia. An international researcher of social health statistics says the protesters have a point: Great inequality is bad for everyone in a society.

Richard Wilkinson, professor emeritus of social epidemiology at Britain's University of Nottingham Medical School, has compared nations with high inequality to others where the population is more equal in terms of wealth.

He also has looked at U.S. states; the census found that West Virginia is the 13th least equal. Wilkinson says less-equal countries have more serious social problems.

"Mental illness is three times as common. Life expectancy is lower. Teen-age births are much, much higher. Rates of violence measured by homicide are much higher."

Defenders of free-market economics say the rich earn their higher status through talent or hard work. Wilkinson says it makes sense to reward merit but problems arise when the gap between the top and bottom grows too large.

Wilkinson calls inequality "corrosive" for the social fabric. Since humans are social animals, he isn't surprised that the numbers show that inequality affects people at all levels.

"Inequality does not just affect the poor. The vast majority of the population does better in a more equal society."

As a society becomes more unequal, Wilkinson says, the importance of status increases. Then, he says, consumerism and competition combine to make the entire population more worried and unhappy, which eventually impacts health.

"In a more unequal society, where we judge each other more by status, the really important drivers of those differences are the effects of chronic stress."

Once a nation becomes developed, United Nations statistics show, more wealth rarely makes people happier. Mental health, obesity and infant mortality are among the problems in some of these countries, he says. The good news, he says, is that greater equality can help.

"We haven't known what to do about any of these problems, but now I think we have a handle on it. There are things that policymakers can do."

More information about the research is online at Wilkinson's book is titled "The Spirit Level."

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV