Richard Wilkinson is an epidemiologist and a leader in international research of inequality. He is also the co-author of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger with Kate Pickett. Their book has been described by The Sunday Times of London as having “a big idea big enough to change political thinking. In half a page,” the Times says, “it tells you more about the pain of inequality than any play or novel could.”
His TED talk — “How economic inequality harms societies” — has garnered over 1 million views on the TED website since October 2011.
We caught up with him to talk about how inequality can be dangerous to our health.
Riley: You published your book in 2009. Since then the growing disparity between the very rich and everybody else has come to dominate the Occupy Wall Street movement and political campaign rhetoric in the U.S. and Europe. What do you think is missing from the conversation that we’re having?
Wilkinson: What’s missing is action. Although, in Britain and perhaps in the U.S., shareholders are beginning to reign in some of these bonuses, not nearly enough is being done. The pattern we’ve found in our research is quite extraordinarily clear. More unequal countries, the ones with the bigger income differences between rich and poor have much more violence, worse life expectancy, more mental illness, more obesity, more people in prison, and more teenage births. All these problems get worse with greater inequality, because it damages the social fabric of a society.
Riley: Why do you think that is?
Wilkinson: In more unequal societies, the levels of trust — the number of people who feel they can trust others — drops to about fifteen or twenty percent. But in more equal societies, more like sixty or sixty-five percent feel they can trust others. I think that makes a difference in the whole social fabric, not only what it feels like to live in those places, how safe you feel if you’ve got to walk home alone at night in any major city, but also in business transactions and an increase of crime and so on. It has consequences for almost every aspect of how a society works.