Most of the discussion on poverty to date has been about deprivation rather than inequality. This means that the solution is often seen in terms of growing the economy and making sure that poor people have more money and access to resources. But Wilkinson and Pickett point out that the problem is not about the actual level of earnings for poor people – it is about living in a society with pronounced income differentials.
The authors write: ‘we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to ways of improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies.’ But they add: “However, as soon as anything psychological is mentioned discussion tends to focus almost exclusively on individual remedies and treatments.’ (4) In other words, while they are saying the problem is that inequality damages people’s sense of themselves they are not seeing the solution in terms of self-esteem building. They are arguing for a change in the structural inequality which gives rise to the problem – a political and social solution not an individual, psychological one.
This may seem hopelessly idealistic but Wilkinson and Pickett argue that to make a difference we do not have to try to create a perfectly equal society. Countries like Japan and Sweden are not perfectly equal but their less pronounced inequality translates into considerable benefits for everyone in the society.
Given this analysis, it is unsurprising that Wilkinson and Pickett see the solution in terms of redistribution of wealth, largely through changes to the tax and benefit system as well as encouragement for employee-ownership schemes. They also argue that there is more support for this than we might expect. Over the past twenty years polls suggest that around 80 per cent of the UK population believe that income disparities are too large, even though people routinely underestimate the real gap.
Finally, they argue that if the UK were to become more like Japan, Sweden, Finland and Norway as a society we would see real benefits -
Levels of trust might be expected to be two-thirds as high again as they are now, mental illness might be more than halved, everyone would get an additional year of life, teenage birth rates could fall to one-third of what they are now, homocide rates could fall by 75 per cent, everyone could get the equivalent of almost seven weeks extra holiday a year, and the government could be closing prisons all over the country. (261)
'The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better', Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K., 2009, Allen Lane.