By now, everyone has heard of TED, the nonprofit foundation whose mission is to spread ideas. Originally, its speakers and audience were drawn from the realms of Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Now, TED draws from inspiration from every well:

Today, TED is best thought of as a global community. It’s a community welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world.

TED’s yearly global conference in Edinburgh is one of the most significant events a person could hope to attend. The speakers whose “TED Talks” are offered for free online include “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers,” who get to talk for no more than 18 minutes.

Richard Wilkinson’s speech only ran 16 minutes and 34 seconds, and he made a lot of good points in that time about how economic inequality harms societies. Does it make any sense at all that some of the wealthiest countries also have the greatest economic gaps between rich and poor?

Extensive research done by Wilkinson, who is emeritus professor of public health at the University of Nottingham, revealed an interesting corollary to his contention that more equal societies almost always fare better in a number of important ways. Some countries get along fine with redistribution of wealth, and some succeed because there is a smaller difference in the range of before-tax income. The thing is, he says:

[W]e conclude that it doesn’t much matter how you get your greater equality, as long as you get there somehow. We’ve got to constrain income, the bonus culture incomes at the top… [T]he take-home message though is that we can improve the real quality of human life by reducing the differences in incomes between us.

The studies were set up with carefully crafted parameters. The economic disparity between the rich and the poor was measured by taking the top 20% and the bottom 20%, and comparing them to find out exactly how much difference there is. Here’s what they came up with:

The more unequal countries are doing worse on all these kinds of social problems. It’s an extraordinarily close correlation.

We’re talking about all kinds of problems, certain of which are more pervasive at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder, all of them worse in the more unequal countries — not just a little bit worse, but anything from twice as common to 10 times as common. Wilkinson says:

What we’re looking at is general social disfunction related to inequality. It’s not just one or two things that go wrong, it’s most things.

Especially in the area of health and longevity, there is “a lot of difference between the poor and the rest of us,” according to Wilkinson. The research looks at life expectancy, infant mortality, homicide, teen birth rates, and many other indicators. Mental illness is one, including addiction to alcohol or hard drugs. Whole societies, Wilkinson says, have three times the mental illness rates as other societies, and it’s all tied up with economic inequality. Inequality has psychosocial effects:

More to do with feelings of superiority and inferiority, of being valued and devalued, respected and disrespected… The big change in our understanding of drivers of chronic health in the rich developed world is how important chronic stress from social sources is affecting the immune system, the cardiovascular system.

Psychosocial stress has the same detrimental effects on the human body and mind as any other kind of stress. Mental illness leads to homelessness, and homelessness leads to mental illness. Another vicious cycle is created by what Joel Dyer calls the “perpetual prisoner machine.” Where do homeless people come from? Sometimes, from prison. But that doesn’t mean they should be exiled forever. They’re not disposable people. And if a person never did time before, being homeless increases the likelihood of it, exponentially.

Wilkinson illustrates again and again how inequality affects not just the poor but the entire society. Although a closer approach to equality makes the most difference at the bottom, he points out, there are benefits at the top as well. Trust level is an interesting one. In the most unequal societies, only about 15% of the population feel that other people can be trusted. In the most equal societies, the number is more like 60%. In more equal societies, there is more community involvement, and that means making sure everybody is involved, who wants to be. Including people experiencing homelessness, who, if community is real, can and will be helped to escape that condition.

“How economic inequality harms societies” can also be reached via Universal Living Wage  (click on “What’s New” on the menu on the left).


Source: “About TED,”
Source: “Richard Wilkinson: How economic inequality harms societies,”
Image by Jerry.