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Social Health by the Numbers: Wealth Inequality Bad for All

October 25, 2011

SANTA FE, N.M. - The "99 Percent - Occupy Everywhere" movement has spread to hundreds of cities, including some in New Mexico. 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 the University of Nottingham Medical School in the U.K., has compared nations with high inequality to others where the population is more equal in terms of wealth. Wilkinson says less-equal countries have more serious social problems.

"Mental illness is, say, three times as common. Life expectancy is lower. Teenage births are much, much higher; rates of violence measured by homicide are much higher."

Wilkinson calls inequality "corrosive" for the social fabric. And since humans are social animals, he isn't surprised that the numbers show 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."

He says as a society becomes more unequal, 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."

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 that problems arise when the gap between the top and bottom grows too large.

More about Wilkinson's research is at His book is "The Spirit Level."

Dick Layman, Public News Service - NM