Inequality – The Enemy Between Us

Kate Pickett, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of York and Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association (BHA), this week presented the BHA’s annual Holyoake Lecture in Manchester on the theme of ‘Inequality: The Enemy Between Us’.

Co-author of The Spirit Level: Why Equalitya is Better for Everyone, Kate outlined the findings of research undertaken along with co-author Richard Wilkinson. Focusing on the effects of inequality between countries, she presented an analysis of the reality of inequality and the far-reaching impact it has on everyone, regardless of wealth or status.

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A record number turned out for the fourth annual lecture, which outlined data on how more equal countries (those with less of a gap between the richest 20% compared to the poorest 20%) do better in every measurement, including life expectancy, welfare, education, working hours, mental illness, and the feeling of trust.

Research presented continued to stress the negative impact of an unequal society – imprisonment, social mobility, and homicide all correlate to inequality levels, leading Kate to quip that ‘if you want “the American Dream” you should move to Denmark’.Key findings presented during the lecture made for uncomfortable reading – in the UK the richest 20% are 7.2 times wealthier that the poorest 20%. In Sweden, they are 4 times wealthier. While this at first may not seem a shocking statistic, Kate went on to show the true effect this has. For example, in the UNICEF index of child well-being measured against income inequality, the UK ranked bottom among wealthy countries, and only did slightly better in every other measure.

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Social hierarchy and friendship, Kate noted, are two sides of the same coin. In a less equal society, people are keener to brag about their perceived abilities and are generally less sympathetic to the plight of the poor. In a more equal society, friendship eclipses feelings of rank, and create a greater sense of responsibility towards others.

Kate concluded the lecture answering questions from the floor, and the audience was not going to let her off lightly. The first question to be asked was ‘What can we do?’ She explained that at first she thought that just showing data was enough, but it soon became apparent that more was needed. In 2009 along with Bill Kerry and Richard Wilkinson she founded the Equality Trust to campaign to reduce income inequality in order to improve the quality of life in the UK, and while Bhutan has the gross national happiness commission to help address some of the effects of inequality, the UK still has a long way to go to start taking some of the findings from this research seriously.

The 2012 Holyoake Lecture was filmed and will soon be available on our YouTube channel.