A pub quiz that asks you to name the world’s richest country seems too easy. The obvious answer – ‘the USA’ – is also the right one. It has an average income of more than $40,000 per head. But does this mean that the American dream has come true? What about if the question asked for the country with the greatest life expectancy? Or highest literacy rate? Or lowest number of infant deaths? Or lowest levels of mental illness? ‘The USA’ is not the right answer to any of these questions. But how can that be if it is the richest country in the world?
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have uncovered an unwelcome truth about being rich. It might be OK for the rich (though even this is debateable), but it’s no good for the ordinary citizens of an otherwise rich country, if the gap between them and the rich is too large. And this where the American dream falls apart: the country is rich, but far too few people share the riches. The gap between the rich and the poor – or the rich and the average – is bigger in the US than anywhere else.
What Wilkinson and Pickett do is to present the graphs in a different way. Instead of measuring progress against overall wealth, they measure it against the size of the gap between rich and poor. And – surprise, surprise – the USA turns out to have more in common with a lowly European country like Portugal than it does with Scandinavia and Japan. The Nordic countries limit the gap between the rich and poor through their taxes. In Japan, the gap is kept narrow by tradition – big Japanese corporations simply don’t pay their executives the exaggerated amounts paid in the US and – you guessed it – here in Britain.
Because we come out of it badly too. While not quite as badly off as the United States, we are worse off than most of our Northern European neighbours on a whole range of indicators, including infant deaths. And the reason appears to be the same – our inequality isn’t as bad as the USA or Portugal but it’s a lot worse than most other EU countries. Embarrassingly, the average Brit can expect to live as long as the average Cuban – because Cuba might be poorer but it is much more equal and (of course) also has a comprehensive, free health service.
This book covers such a range of factors – obesity, murders and even bullying (yes, we top the list!) – that it is surprising that housing is barely mentioned. Perhaps it would show Britain to be better off. No matter, the central message is the important one: societies that are more equal are better for everyone. There is hard evidence to prove it, and this book presents it in spade loads.
Original post: Housing Magazine