Inequality is bad for society, economic prosperity good

February 2, 2020

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Inequality is bad for society, economic prosperity good

Rich countries vary a lot when it comes to health and social problems. A comparison of social ills from intentional homicides to obesity rates in 40 rich societies shows that Asian and European countries fare much better than Anglophone and Latin American countries. The most problem-ridden countries are Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and the United States. The positive end of the list is headed by Japan, South Korea and Singapore, followed by Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. Germany ranks 15th just behind Austria. While economic inequality is associated with more social ills, economic prosperity dampens them.

These are the results of a study conducted by a team of sociologists who investigated 40 high-income countries from all world regions, to find out whether income inequality and national prosperity can help understand why some countries are more problem-ridden than others.

In a cross-national comparison, countries with a bigger income gap between rich and poor indeed have more social ills. Inequality is bad for society as it goes along with weaker social bonds between people, which in turn makes health and social problems more likely. At the same time, richer countries have fewer social ills. Economic prosperity goes along with stronger social bonds in society and thereby makes health and social problem less likely.

What the researchers say: “This is the main reason behind the geographic pattern we found, with social ills being more widespread in the Americas and the Anglophone New World countries, and less widespread in European and Asian countries”, explains the lead author.

Their empirical analysis was based on a set of six social ills, namely health issues such as low life expectancy, infant mortality, and obesity, and social problems such as intentional homicides, teenage pregnancy, and imprisonment. The data were compiled from international sources such as the World Bank and the World Health Organization for the years from 2000 to 2015. The structure of the compiled dataset allows comparison between health and social problems of countries across time.

So, what? What we do know from previous research (see recent TRs) is that subjective wellbeing—how people see their lives—has been declining throughout the world over the past ten or so years. Part of that has been caused by increasing economic uncertainty and rising inequality. The other main components of SWB include social support, and a sense of purpose.

We know from a ton of recent research that both of these are declining fast. Other factors include the depersonalization of work, decreasing autonomy in most areas of our lives thanks to work pressures and the effects of AI and “surveillance capitalism” and the destruction of the natural environment.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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