Big Ideas in Social Science: An Interview With Kate Pickett on the Case for Equality

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The latest in a series of conversations with leading intellectuals in collaboration with the Social Science Bites podcast and the Social Science Space website.

By David Edmonds & Nigel Warburton


Kate Pickett. (Photo: Screenshot/The Big Think)

Kate Pickett is professor of epidemiology in the department of health sciences at the University of York. She is co-author, with Richard Wilkinson, of the bestselling The Spirit Level, winner of the 2012 publication of the year from the Political Studies Association and translated into 24 languages. Pickett is also a co-founder and Trustee of the Equality Trust.

David Edmonds: There are huge inequalities in the United States between rich and poor. Some claim that this is one of the secrets to the dynamism of the U.S. economy. There are tremendous rewards to be had from success: big homes, exotic holidays. Well, yes and no. Kate Pickett, of the University of York, is one half of the duo who wrote The Spirit Level. She says that, in an unequal society, even the wealthy suffer.

Nigel Warburton:The topic we’re focusing on is the case for equality. Could you begin by saying what kind of equality you’re interested in?

Kate Pickett:Our research focuses on social inequality, and by that I mean the vertical inequalities in society — how a society is structured hierarchically — and we use income inequality as a measure of that. Of course, there are all kinds of different inequalities that we don’t focus on: for example, inequalities of ethnicity, of age, or of gender.

Warburton:Are you saying that distribution of income is a measure of social hierarchy, or that it is the social hierarchy?

Pickett:Both. Income inequality is easy to measure these days, so it’s a useful way to compare different societies. But because we use our income in very social ways, because income has a social meaning, it turns out to be a really good measure of the social distances between us.

Warburton:And we’re talking about income, rather than wealth?

Pickett:Yes, I’m sure wealth disparities work in the same way, but the data for income inequality is very good, and so that’s the measure we use to compare different societies.

Warburton:Could you say a bit about what kind of data you’ve gathered?

Pickett:Well, I haven’t gathered any of it. What we do is use data that other people have collected. We’re always looking for robust measures that are internationally recognized as being comparable and reliable. So our income inequality data come from the United Nations Human Development reports, for example, and we use data on health from the World Health Organization.

Warburton:And, globally, you found really interesting patterns about what inequality of income correlates with?

Pickett:It’s not quite global. We focus on the rich, developed market democracies, and there’s a reason for that. For developing or emerging economies, the early stages of economic growth with rising standards of living are really important. The well-being of people in those societies depends on them having sufficient food, shelter, warmth, etc. These societies need economic growth and for their living standards to go up. But in the rich, developed countries, there’s no longer any relationship between a country getting richer and its health improving, or its happiness improving, or its well-being improving. It’s as if we’ve got to the end of what economic growth can do for us in improving our societies. And so, over decades, you see countries getting richer and richer, but no improvement in their relative health or well-being. So what becomes important in a society like ours is relative social position, and that has a more powerful effect on our health and well-being than the fact that perhaps a very few of us may no longer have enough.

Warburton:Is that a psychological effect? Are you saying that because I feel superior, in various ways, to people who earn less than me, I flourish? That seems odd?

Pickett:Actually, I wouldn’t call it just a psychological effect, more of a psycho-social effect. It’s not just about how you feel in relation to others — both those above you and those below you in the structure of society — but also how those feelings affect your physiology. We know that low social status has a profound effect on chronic stress, for instance, which then can have profound effects on our health. But status can also affect the way we behave, both toward those above us and those below. So there is an emotional, psychological component to how you feel about your relative social status, but there are also these deep biological effects as well.

Warburton:These effects are apparent on the people of relatively low social status. Are they apparent on the higher-status individuals?

Pickett:There aren’t that many studies that allow us to look at that; you need to be able to compare people at the same socio-economic position across different societies. But, from the studies we have, it’s clear that the effect of inequality is most profound on the poorest, and the lowest social status, but it goes all the way up to the top. If you, with your level of education, or income, or your social class, were living in a more unequal society, you and your children would be more likely to have health and social problems than your counterparts living in a more equal place. We’re comparing modern market democracies that are all capitalist societies, but there are striking differences in inequality between them. If you look at countries like Japan, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, their income inequality, with the measure we use, is about twice that of, say, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.. So we’re not talking about a difference between perfect equality and something horrendous. We don’t have a society that has perfect equality. But we can see that societies that are a little bit more equal than us, or a fair bit more equal than us, or quite a lot more equal than us, do a lot better.


Pacific Standard is running a series of excerpts from Big Ideas in Social Science, a collection of interviews from the

Social Science Bites

podcast. (Photo: SAGE Publishing)

Warburton:So are you really saying that if there’s an incredibly wealthy individual in the U.S., that person would be better off, in terms of health and happiness, if he or she moved to Japan or to one of the countries that has less inequality?

Pickett:Yes. The data we have on income inequality doesn’t include the super-rich. They’re not there in surveys of income distribution. But if you’re in the top, say, 20 percent of the income distribution, or the top 10 percent in some studies, or the top 5 percent, the benefits of greater equality extend up to you. So, yes, if you were that wealthy individual, in a more equal society, your life expectancy would, on average, be longer. Your children would be less likely to drop out of school, or do drugs, or become pregnant. You would be less likely to be a victim of crime. There are still problems that arise from living in a more unequal society, from which rich people cannot isolate themselves. So inequality is very destructive of the social fabric, the cohesion of society. You get more violence in a more unequal society, and we see a reaction to that among the rich with more gated communities, which is a fearful way to live. And if you live in a very unequal society where status matters so much more, there’s a constant striving to keep up. That’s a source of stress in itself. So, there are lots of ways in which inequality causes problems even for those who are achieving well.

Warburton:Given that relative status is so important, mightn’t there be a different way of changing people’s attitude to status? Currently status is connected with wealth and income; but could we not find other markers of status, and so not get into difficulties associated with redistribution?

Pickett:I’m interested to know what you think those markers might be.

Warburton:Success in non-economic terms. Lots of people choose to be academics not for the money, certainly, but for the prestige that goes with being a respected scientist or expert on literature.

Pickett:I think it’s true that a lot of people find fulfillment through things other than income. But when we say “a lot of people,” it’s quite clear that income is actually driving a lot of people’s thoughts and perceptions and sense of well-being. Those who choose to “opt out” of that rat race are rather unusual in society. A more equal society seems to give more people an opportunity to flourish and find value in the kinds of work they do, so that money is not the only marker of status.

Warburton:Your research conclusions are potentially very interesting politically, because as a social scientist you’re not just describing the world: you seem to be revealing implications that suggest we ought to change it.

Pickett:That’s true, and it’s quite difficult as an academic social scientist to know where the boundaries of your discipline lie, and what your role should be in disseminating information that you have. We and others have built up a huge body of evidence on the damaging consequences of inequality, which have enormous political implications. Should one strive for growth, or should one strive for a fairer distribution of the proceeds of growth? I’m a social epidemiologist, so I see my job as trying to describe and understand the social causes of poor health and well-being. But I’m not a policy expert, so although my work has huge policy implications, I don’t see it as my role to prescribe the policy solutions that would flow from that. However, the great thing we’ve also learned from our empirical research is that there are different ways that a society can become more equal. In Japan the income distribution is quite narrow to start with — there aren’t huge pay ratios within Japan. In Sweden, which is about as equal as Japan, there are quite large income differences to start with, and it achieves its greater equality through taxation and redistribution. So it clearly doesn’t matter too much how you get that greater equality; it just matters that you achieve it. That means there is a menu of policy options for people to think about.

Warburton:You have to tease out causes and effects and distinguish them from mere correlations. But societies are so complex and so different. Japan is, in many respects, nothing like a Scandinavian country — so comparing them must be incredibly difficult.

Pickett:Well, no, actually that makes it easier. Because if all the equal countries were all the same in some other way, all had exactly the same kind of welfare system, and all the unequal countries were different on that same factor, all had very contrasting welfare systems, then we might not be able to distinguish whether or not problems were caused by the welfare regime or by income inequality. So that heterogeneity, that variance in how countries achieve equality, is helpful in making the causal inference. And, of course, we would never say that inequalities are the only cause of the health and social problems we looked at. If we take, say, teenage births or homicides, clearly lots of different factors affect their prevalence in different societies. What we are saying is that inequality looks to be a common root cause across different societies of a whole range of problems.

Warburton:Was that a discovery that you expected?

Pickett:Well, we’d been working on health inequalities for a long time, and there’s now a huge literature on income inequality and health. Separately, criminologists have long been looking at income inequality as a cause of violent crime. Once we started thinking about the psycho-social pathways, which lead from inequality to poor health, it became clear that we ought to see other behavioral or social consequences of inequality. Once we started looking at those, then there was a surprise that the picture was so consistent and the differences were so large. There is a 10- to 16-fold difference in imprisonment rates between different societies, a six-fold difference in teenage birth rates, a three- or four-fold difference in mental illness. So the range of things that seemed to be affected was striking, but we started looking across the range because of the strong picture that was already there for health.

Warburton:So, how do you guard against the confirmation bias, the idea that if you look for a particular correlation you probably will find it, because you dismiss counter-evidence?

Pickett:Obviously one tries not to do that. We were systematic in the selection of the countries we decided to look at from a list of the richest countries, excluding tax havens. We chose to look at health and social problems that have a strong social gradient and we chose to look at those that had good quality data. We decided that if we had a data source like the WHO, which provided data on the countries we had chosen to look at, we would take all of the data, and not just drop pieces of it. And we described cases where we found that what we were expecting didn’t happen. There is, for instance, no rela­tionship between income inequality and higher suicide rates. In fact, it goes in the opposite direction; more equal societies tend to have higher suicide rates. We think that is also to do with psycho-social effects on society, and whether or not you tend to blame yourself or society at large for your problems. There’s no relationship between smoking and income inequal­ity among adults, although recently someone has published a study showing that for young people there is. That is probably because all of the countries we look at are at very different points on the smoking epidemic.

The other surprising discovery was children’s aspirations; it appeared that they were lower in more equal societies. It took a while to think about that, and then I realized that the societies where people were expressing higher aspirations were actually the ones with lower educational attainment. This is a very sad fact. I think what that is telling us is that the societies in which a lot of kids drop out of school or don’t achieve their potential, are the unequal ones where money and status have become very important. Their aspirations are there, even though their capability of achieving them is not.

So we’re always honest about finding relationships that don’t fit the picture, and then trying to think about what explanations there might be for that. But we also subjected our inference to a couple of tests. We chose somebody else’s index of well-being, the UNICEF index of child well-being, which has 40 different components in it, strongly related to inequality. And then we also decided to look at the 50 U.S. states as a completely separate test, and found that, for all of the things we’re looking at, the relationship with inequality is there in the states as well.

Warburton:I know that your work has been picked up by politicians, in Britain particularly, on both sides of the House. How do you feel about that?

Pickett:I feel it’s an excellent first step. The first step in changing whether or not we are a more equal society is for there to be a political debate about whether that is desirable, what the evidence tells us, and discussion about the policies we need to get there. I think the evidence is so convincing that whether you’re on the political right, or the left, you ought to be thinking about solutions that make society more equal that are acceptable to your political ideology. And we have seen a real shift in the public debate around inequality, and, in time, hopefully, we will see the policy shifts that help to achieve change. But it’s not just been in the U.K. that our work has been of interest. It’s been debated in parliaments in New Zealand, in Canada, and in other places as well. And we work with an international group, the Alliance for Sustainability and Prosperity, to influence bodies such as the U.N. to think about development in new ways. This is about creating sustainable development that maximizes well-being. That requires working with people from lots of different disciplines. Not only are social epidemiologists showing the appalling consequences of inequality for health and well-being; economists are now starting to look very closely at inequality as a cause of economic instability. So that’s important, because it adds a range of evidence that helps make the case for greater equality.

Warburton:You’ve had critics as well as supporters, and some of them have been quite vocal. Have any of them come up with serious evidence that made you think again?

Pickett:No. I think that most of the criticisms were ill-informed and shallow, and that actually the body of evidence that exists is really solid. Since we published our book, research on inequality has expanded and there’s a flood of new research that is constantly coming across our desks showing that inequality is related to things we hadn’t thought of, or confirming some of our hunches. So, no, I don’t feel that there has been any serious criticism that we can’t answer or address, or that makes us feel shaky about the evidence that is there.