The US vs. The UK: A Social Comparison

July 6, 2011Marketsby David Smith

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For decades, politicians in the US and the UK have paid scant attention to growing income divides, believing in the “trickle down” effect of wealth created by the rich. But Richard Wilkinson, a professor of social epidemiology at Nottingham University and an expert in public health, has assembled a mountain of evidence from all over the world that extreme inequality has a damaging effect on the physical and psychological wellbeing of whole societies.

He uses the information to create a series of scatter-graphs which document the prevalence of a range of social ills. The evidence was published in the influential book The Spirit Level, co-written with Professor Kate Pickett of York University.

Wilkinson found that on almost every index of quality of life, wellbeing, deprivation, or social mobility, there is a strong correlation between economic inequality and social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable end, and the UK, the US and Portugal – very unequal countries - are at the high end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.

 “Our research shows the psycho-social effects of inequality, which have more to do with feelings of superiority and inferiority than absolute living standards,” Wilkinson said. “Living standards are the drivers of social comparison, but most of the outcomes are behavioural, so things must go through the mind. Increasing inequality leads to more downward prejudice and shaming and stigma. The ones at the top are brilliant and capable and the ones at the bottom are lazy and stupid. That’s why inequality hurts.”

The social outcomes have nothing to do with total wealth, or average income. The US is the world’s richest nation, with high average incomes, but it has a level of violence - murder, in particular - that is far higher than any other Western nation. Longevity is also affected by inequality: Greece has half the GDP per head of the US, yet Greeks have a life expectancy of 79.5 years, compared to 78.3 years in the US, which is the lowest level in the developed world. The UK’s average life expectancy is also higher than in the US, at 79.4 years at birth.    

Although the UK fares badly compared to most OECD countries (and is the worst developed nation in which to be a child according to Unicef), its social problems are not as pronounced as in the US. Rates of illness are lower, for example. Diabetes, for example, affects twice as many Americans as British. 

“The UK is near the top on many of the measures, but the US is a good way out in front on most of them,” said Wilkinson. “Our health is better, violence is lower, the teenage birth rate is not so high, the murder rate is nowhere near as high, and the obesity rate is not quite so high. These are important differences between the two countries.”  

The Spirit Level also comes up with more surprising correlations, such as the erosion of trust in more unequal societies, and perhaps most disturbing of all, the link between growing economic divides and mental illness. Around a quarter of British people, and more than a quarter of Americans, experience mental problems in any given year, compared with fewer than 10% in the more equal countries of Japan, Germany, Sweden and Italy.

If Wilkinson is right, then the difference in levels of inequality is the most important distinction between the US and the UK, and many differences in social outcomes stem from this key factor. But there are other interesting points of comparison.