Recipe for a dysfunctional society: Inequality

People in more unequal societies have worse health and lower life expectancy, no matter how rich the society is

The evidence shows unmistakably that more equal societies – those with smaller income differences between rich and poor – are friendlier and more cohesive: community life is stronger, people trust each other more, and there is less crime and violence. So the deep human intuition that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive is true.

People in more unequal societies have worse health and lower life expectancy; they are more likely to have drug problems and to suffer more mental illness. Measures of child wellbeing are worse and children do less well at school. Rates of teenage births, obesity and violence are all higher, and more people are in prison.

Unequal states = health and social problems

We examined the effects of income inequality among rich developed countries and checked our results in a separate test bed: did inequality have the same effects among the 50 U.S. states?

The picture was remarkably similar: the more unequal states have more of almost every health and social problem. Rather than making just one or two things go wrong, the evidence shows that the bigger the income differences between rich and poor, the more dysfunctional a society becomes.

Many of the differences in how well or badly more and less equal societies perform are enormous. Rates of infant mortality and mental illness are two or three times as high in the most unequal compared to the most equal of the rich developed countries. Teenage birth rates, the proportion of the population in prison, and sometimes homicide rates are as much as eight or ten times as high.

These differences are so large because the benefits of greater equality are not confined to the poor or to those living in deprived neighborhoods. Although the benefits of greater equality are largest among people lower down the social ladder, even the better off seem to gain some benefit from living in a more equal society.

There seem to be two quite different routes to becoming a more equal society. Some, like Sweden, start off with large differences in earnings and then reduce the gap through high taxes and generous benefits. Other societies, like Japan, which perform as well as Sweden, have much lower taxes and get their equality by having smaller differences in earnings before taxes.

It looks as if it doesn’t matter how a society becomes more equal as long as it gets there somehow.


– Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are co-founders of The Equality Trust ( and authors of The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone. Column distributed by Troy Media (