More Equality, More Well-Being for All

I am a big fan of the TED.com talks about current Technology, Entertainment and Design issues emerging around the world. A month or so ago I came across a TED Talk by Richard Wilkinson, a British health economist. It is 16 amazing minutes of one chart after the next establishing the correlation between income inequality/equality and suffering/thriving. Normally we think about this topic through the lens of charity and “good works.” Now there is a different and more powerful way to think about it and how it impacts those who have a lot of money and those who don’t and everyone in between. This is a fundamental question that is relevant to community engagement and community success right here in Sarasota County.

What is Wilkinson talking about when he uses the term "equality?" He’s exploring the impact on overall well-being of the distance between those with very little income and those with a great deal. Specifically, he looks at the size of the gap and its impact on measures of societal health. In his words, he’s looking at, "...how much richer the richest 20% is ... compared to the poorest 20%." When one looks at this across countries, the difference between wealth and poverty ranges from about 4 times in the most equal countries to 10 times in the least equal. Equipped with that set of data, Wilkinson then looks at measures of success or well-being compared to these levels of income inequality. The charts below are a taste of this data.

The states in the US are also shown to have such a relationship. blog-image-us1

The punch line is that, “The evidence shows that reducing (income) inequality is the best way of improving the quality of the social environment, and so the real quality of life for all of us… If you want to know why one country does better or worse than another, the first thing to look at is the extent of (income) inequality.”

In the United Kingdom the evidence suggests that if income inequality were halved: - Murder rates would halve - Mental illness would reduce by two thirds - Obesity would halve - Imprisonment would reduce by 80% - Teen births would reduce by 80% - Levels of trust would increase by 85%

As it turns out this topic has started to resonate with others. National columnist, Nicholas Kristof, cites some pretty startling numbers about the level of income inequality in our country. The 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans. Data about our nation shows that we are one of the most unequal when it comes to income. What are the implications? The drop-out rate, violent crime, math and literacy and an index of overall well-being are related to income inequality.

Furthermore, both Kristof and economist Paul Krugman indicate that there is evidence from the International Monetary Fund that "equality appears to be an important ingredient in promoting and sustaining growth." Of the 65 industrial nations, the more unequal ones experience slower growth on average.

Enough already with the citations and data. Sorry - I get into this stuff.

What are the implications for community engagement? SCOPE believes that important and lasting change/improvement happens as a result of residents being engaged. So when a recent report from the America’s Civic Health Index showed that even basic engagement declines as a result of job loss or economic decline, the fact that the Great Recession has had a real impact on engagement.

Particularly important to Sarasota County is that this new analysis from Wilkinson makes the case that ALL income levels are negatively impacted by income inequality. That means that even wealthy people suffer from decreased well-being when they live in a community with high income inequality. This is a big point, a little surprising to many and worthy of a more detailed analysis.

When Wilkinson turns his attention to the 50 US states he shows that “…income inequality exerts a comparable effect across all population subgroups.” Others characterize this by saying that “…inequality acted like a pollutant spread throughout society.” One can conclude that within the US as well, the “benefits of greater equality were largest in poorer counties, but still existed even in the richest counties.”

Finally, SCOPE recognizes that data about these issues are not available at the local level and having these data would be helpful to understand how these issues come to life here in our own community. Over the next months we will pursue these data and will bring them to you in the context of these robust international studies. This information may shed light on the issue and point toward how we can make local changes that impact our community well-being.

What we discover as a community has implications for actions and decisions around programs, policy, expenditures and a reorientation to what we thought to be the nature of well-being in community.

What data do we need at the local scale to better understand this?

What can you imagine could happen here in Sarasota County that might make a difference?