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Lottery of birth
Lottery of birth

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7.1 The spirit level

In their widely read book, The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) argued that people in the West are reaching the end of what economic growth can do to improve well-being. In the video below, Richard Wilkinson explains his views.

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Wilkinson and Pickett suggest that people living now are the first generations to have to find a different answer than economic growth to improving human well-being. They believe that they have that answer.

They brought together evidence that appears to show that the majority of social ills, including ill health, violence, drug abuse, obesity, mental illness and large prison populations are more prevalent in less equal societies (such as in the UK). They suggest that inequality should be the main focus of social and economic policies. They constructed a detailed and persuasive argument stating that we are more affected by income differentials within our own societies than by our wealth. They offer two plausible explanations for their data.

One is that what matters in rich countries may not be your actual income level and living standard, but how you compare with other people in the same society. Perhaps average standards don’t matter and what does is simply whether you are doing better or worse than other people – where you come in the social pecking order.

The other possibility is that the social gradient in health…results not from the effects of relative income or social status on health, but from the effects of social mobility, sorting the healthy from the unhealthy. Perhaps the healthy tend to move up the social ladder and the unhealthy end up at the bottom.

(Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, p. 13)

In the next section, you will explore the spirit level hypothesis a little further.