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Q+A interview with Professor Richard Wilkinson

Q+A interview with Professor Richard Wilkinson.

The interview has been transcribed below. The full length video interviews and panel discussions from this morning's Q+A can be watched on at,

Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TV ONE. Repeats at 9.10pm Sundays, 10.10am and 2.10pm Mondays on TVNZ 7

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PAUL On Friday, Guyon Espiner spoke to Professor Richard Wilkinson in his Yorkshire home and asked if the professor was saying that those social ills are directly attributable to a lack of income equality.


Yes. I mean, what we've done is look at the rich, developed countries, and we find that the ones with the biggest income differences between rich and poor do worse on a whole range of health and social problems: they have more violence, they have more drug problems, they have low life expectancy, they have more mental illness, many other things. We not only looked at it amongst the rich, developed countries, but as a sort of check on these relationships, we also looked at it amongst the 50 states of the USA as a sort of separate test bed and find just the same pattern there. And in a way what we're saying and what the data shows is that intuition that people have had for centuries that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive is truer than we ever imagined.

GUYON I wonder whether you believe that this theory is being played out in some of the modern events that we've seen, such as the London riots.

PROF WILKINSON We don't look at data on riots, though other people have, and it's quite clear one of the precipitating factors are cuts in government expenditure. I suspect also high unemployment, and some of the kids involved in these riots were very young, and youth unemployment - I mean, if you look at unemployment rates amongst 16- and 17-year-olds, it's about 40% nationally, and of course in the more deprived areas, it'll be a good deal higher than that.

GUYON If we look at New Zealand, we've had a rapid rise in inequality over the last couple of decades, and we're one of the more unequal countries in the world, where the richest 20% are something like seven times better off than the poorest 20%. Do you believe that New Zealand would be a healthier place with fewer social problems if we had reduced that gap?

PROF WILKINSON Well, of course, there are a lot of other things influencing all these kinds of problems. But inequality seems to be a common factor, and it is very clear that more-equal countries with narrower differences do better, and so this will be one of the factors influencing levels of violence and health and so on in New Zealand. It may not always be the most important factor, but it's one of the powerful influences.

GUYON I guess when you look at the countries that you've studied - these richest 23 countries - all have a degree of inequality. Even Japan has something like a factor of three or four between the richest group and the poorest group. You could argue, couldn't you, that in order to get rich, you need a certain degree of inequality?

PROF WILKINSON Well, many people have looked at the relationship between the amount of inequality and economic growth. There are papers that come out on either side of the argument, but it seems to me slightly more come out saying that greater equality is good for growth, and that, I think, makes some sense, because we know that in more unequal countries, there's less social mobility, kids' maths and literacy scores are lower, and so in a way the more unequal countries are wasting a lot of their talent, and I think that in the long run is a cost and is likely to reduce economic growth.

GUYON I guess a lot of people would look at this equation of equality and wonder whether it's better to live in a society where, say, everyone has an income of $20,000 or is it better to live in a society where the poorest person earns, say, $40,000, yet the incomes range up to a million. In other words, is it better to have equality, or is it actually a matter of how well off the poor people are?

PROF WILKINSON Well, one of the reasons why we look at the richest countries in the world is that amongst those, national income per capita no longer seems to make a difference to levels of life expectancy, to infant mortality, to measures of wellbeing and happiness or indeed to things like the UNICEF measures of child wellbeing. You know, countries like United States, which are very rich, do badly on almost all of those measures. Countries like Greece, Israel, Portugal - only half as rich as the US - do often as well. And the more equal of the rich developed countries do consistently better, so it looks as if in poorer countries, obviously, where many people haven't got basic necessities, it's important to raise material standards, and that has all sorts of benefits. But for us in the rich, developed world, having more and more of everything seems to make less and less difference to the real measures of human wellbeing.

GUYON One of the other things that strikes me when I look at your book and your work is that the more equal countries are also the ones with the more homogenous populations. So if you look at Japan or Finland or Norway or Sweden, they tend to be the countries with less immigration, and you look at your more unequal countries - United States, Britain, New Zealand, Australia - they tend to be countries which have taken in more immigrants or countries which have been colonised and have an indigenous population which is still struggling to come to terms with that. Did you look at that factor in your work?

PROF WILKINSON People have often raised this issue, and it's been looked at in the wider research literature, and it doesn't explain the effects of inequality. But actually, the patterns that you assume in your question aren't as a clear as I think people imagine. So Sweden has the same proportion foreign-born as the United States. The biggest immigrant group into the United States are Hispanics, many of them from Mexico, and although they're uniformly poor and badly educated, their health is as good as the non-Hispanic white population of the US. One of the really important issues which may help you understand this is that the benefits of greater equality are not confined to the poor. So it's not simply a matter of how the poor are doing and whether there's a high proportion of immigrants amongst them. We all seems to do better in more-equal societies - by which I mean that given a person's social class, their income, the education, if they're in a more equal society, they may live a little bit longer, their children are likely to do a wee bit better at school, they'll be less likely to become victims of violence or teenage parents and that kind of thing. In that sense we all do better in a more equal society.

GUYON So do you believe that at its root there's something inherent in us as human beings that strives for equality and justice? I mean, is it jealousy or envy, the negative sides of this? I mean, what is it about societies which you think sort of makes them fall over if you have this big gap between rich and poor?

PROF WILKINSON I think it's more to do with feelings of superiority and inferiority. I think as the material differences get larger, the social distances get larger, and all the signs of social class differentiation increase, and people feel more disrespected, looked down on and issues like that. I think that's really the core of the thing, and you see its effects of involvement in community life, the strength of community life or how much people feel they can trust others. In more-unequal societies, the quality of social relations deteriorates. It all falls away. Community life is weaker; people don't trust each other very much. And in that sense, it really is about the real quality of life, the important quality of life for all of us. And increasingly, that is a matter of the kind of social relationships we have in our society - you know, whether you feel safe to walk through any of our major cities at night. You'd feel much safer in one of the more equal countries to do that.

GUYON I guess one of the other criticisms is that you've left out a lot of the poorer countries - in fact, most of the poorer countries. And you've left out China, which is moving from a communist phase, in which presumably people were more equal, into a capitalist phase, which I imagine is increasing the gap between rich and poor. Yet they would argue in China that they've lifted out a lot of people form poverty and their economic reforms and the way they organise their economy now is actually doing good things for their people.

PROF WILKINSON Well, the few Chinese I've talked to say the quality of social relations had deteriorated quite substantially as they've become more unequal. But again and again, people read our book and they think ours is the only evidence that inequality is damaging. In fact, there are about 200 research papers in the peer-reviewed journals looking at the relationship between measures of health and inequality, there are about 50 papers doing that with levels of violence and inequality, and many of them using much more sophisticated measures, and a number of them including much poorer countries. So even if you look at the provinces of China, it appears that the more unequal ones have worse health. If you look at rich and poor countries together, you have to control for GNP per capita, because it's still important in the poorer countries, but on top of that inequality seems a powerful influence. So you shouldn't look at our evidence and think it's the only evidence. Our book - really, what's important about it, it takes a picture that's been coming together in the epidemiology and shows - using the same group of countries, the same measure of inequality - one problem after another is worse in the more unequal countries.

GUYON Just finally, have you been surprised at the politicisation of the work, that both the left and the right have jumped on this work? Have you been surprised by the amount of controversy and debate that it has generated?

PROF WILKINSON Well, yes, we were very surprised by how much attention the book received, but also surprised that it seemed to be welcome on at least the centre right as well as the left. Cameron, in the early stages of the last election campaign here, quoted the book and mentioned it by name, saying that we showed that by almost any measure, countries with bigger income differences did worse in terms of the quality of life. And it's been taken up by the leaders of the other parties as well. The criticism has come from the extreme right, and they have attacked it in any way they possibly can, but often ignoring that fact that there's so much more academic work and research that supports this picture.

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