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PISA2018 -3.1 Unequal Society and its Cost

One of the most important studies of the severe negative effects of inequality is by Richard Wilkinson from the University of Nottingham and Kate Pickett from the University of York (The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allen Lane, 2009). Lynsey Hanley’s review of their book (‘The Way We Live Now’. The Guardian 14 March, 2009) commences, ‘We are rich enough. Economic growth has done as much as it can to improve material conditions in the developed countries, and in some cases appears to be damaging health. If Britain were instead to concentrate on making its citizens’ incomes as equal as those of people in Japan and Scandinavia, we could each have seven extra weeks’ holiday a year, we would be thinner, we would each live a year or so longer, and we’d trust each other more.’

Hanley noted the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies..  the shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives, the increased rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction, destruction of relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes and its depletion of the planet’s resources through driving consumption.

America is one of the world’s richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but Americans have the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence – murder, in particular – off the scale. ‘Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality – within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging.’ Many of these people are now being recruited into the US army with catastrophic impacts on citizens in which US forces are fighting such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The countries with the lowest inequality are Japan, the Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and some European countries including Belgium, Austria, Germany and Spain: in those countries homicides, mental illness and teenage births are low and life expectancy high. And it is students from Nordic countries and some European countries that do best in international tests like PISA and TIMSS  (conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement).

One of the most important contributors to equality is the community’s concern for the disadvantaged and less fortunate, the way what is usually termed ‘welfare’ is provided. In many European countries the government takes responsibility for unemployment relief, for medical insurance and a variety of schemes to support those such as older people, those with disabilities and so on through income support. In Germany for instance government also has in place provisions to lessen the impact of financial downturns in companies which otherwise would lead to unemployment.

Whilst there are varying amounts of criticism of such welfare payments and various schemes have been introduced to limit payment, especially for the unemployed, the contrast with the U.S. and countries strongly influenced by American practice and belief is stark. In the U.S. much of the welfare is provided by the employer. In particular, this applies to health insurance so that loss of employment means loss of medical insurance which can mean access to medical care is nearly impossible. Life expectancy for African Americans is significantly less than for whites mainly because they are unable to afford medical care: it has nothing to do with violence.

People’s feelings about their level of control over their own destiny have an important impact on their health. Stresses in the workplace flowing from trying to cope with jobs over which employees feel they have little control  cause huge financial losses. VicHealth in in its 2006 report found that preventable stress costs more than $8,000 an employee and $730 million a year to the Australian economy. This includes costs of government subsidised health services and medication.

The long-term deleterious consequences of job stress were documented by Professor Michael Marmot, MRC Research Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College, London and colleagues from that University in the Whitehall study of British civil servants published in 2001. People from higher socioeconomic levels of society were found to be more able to cope with stresses because of the networks of relationships they had formed in their early life. The lack of strong relationships meant that those at lower socioeconomic levels were less able to deal successfully with stress.

Extract from Education Reform: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity 3.1