Poverty is important but inequality matters more

9781608193417Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (London: Allen Lane, 2009) was for a brief moment in time a hot topic- at least in the US and UK.  In Australia it passed without much of a ripple.  This is a pity because its message on education is stark and simple.

The research on which this book is based draws on mainstream longitudinal data from around 200 different sets of data, using reputable sources such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the US Census.  They correlate economic growth and levels of equity with a wide range of social data.

These data, they argue, tell a powerful, convincing and important story – Inequality is bad, not just for the poor, but for everyone.

Wilson and Pickett ‘s evidence shows that for ‘the developed world, the pursuit of economic growth may once have been an important goal that contributed to our wealth and national well being, but this is now longer the case.

Historically the pursuit of economic growth has benefited humanity by providing better education, health, increased longevity, well-being and happiness.  They also argue that for poor countries today, life expectancy increases rapidly during the early stages of economic development.

However at a certain stage of economic development (middle-income countries) this rate of improvement slows down.

Finally, when countries become wealthy economies, the benefits of narrowly pursuing a growth agenda disappear and getting richer adds nothing further to life expectancy.  At this point, there are ever diminishing social returns to investing in the neoliberal agenda and developed societies have very little to gain in the continued sole pursuit of economic growth.

As countries move along the development continuum, infectious diseases common in the poorest countries gradually cease to be the most important cause of death but they are replaced with the diseases of affluence (cardiovascular disease and cancers). As affluent societies grow richer, there are also long-term increases in significant social problems across the board.

It is important to note that this has nothing to do with total wealth – usually expressed as average per-capita income. The US is still among the world’s wealthiest nations in terms of average income per person, but it has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence that is off the scale.

This is because it is not about wealth, nor is it just about poverty. It is about the levels of inequality that have been created in many economies as a direct result of intense wealth creation and the policies that have supported this path.  The authors contrast the US and the UK with Japan and Scandinavian countries – all wealthy economies but the differences between the income of the top 10% and the bottom 10% are in stark contrast.

Note: The data in the book on Australia suggests that we are closer to the US high inequality profile, but ACT Federal Member Dr Andrew Leigh will be launching his latest book Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia, on 1 July 2013 at ANU. For more information click here.

Countries that have lower economic standing but are relatively more equitable will do better on almost everything.  And even though rich people tend, on average, to be healthier and happier than poor people in the same society it is important to note that both richer and poorer will do better in more equitable societies. This is demonstrated through a detailed comparison of nations by levels of inequity and rates of social/economic problems and then by comparing the 50 US states by the same two dimensions. Almost all problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies.  Or to put it another way, there is a very strong tendency for ill health and social problems to occur less frequently in more equal societies.

Inequality is life diminishing, not just for those at the bottom of the heap but right through society.  It increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; and it functions as a driver of consumption that depletes the planet’s resources.

Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality. This makes sense intuitively.  Many baby boomer aged educators will recall the groundbreaking research undertake buy Paul Willis, recounted in his book Learning to Labour, published in the mid eighties.  In rich and disturbing detail, this book provided an up close and personal account of the ways in which young men, with no economic or educational route to achieving high status and earnings, embraced a different form of status – being ‘bad boys; at school, in the gangs and through a hyper masculinity that embraced violence and petty crime. Reading this book was a light bulb moment for me, because it made sense of my growing awareness of the complexity of challenges faced by teachers in high need schools, where these dynamics play out everyday.

Mental health is the stand out example. There have been substantial increases in actual rates of anxiety and depression, and as all teachers know this has been accompanied by increases in behavior problems. There is a strong relationship between mental illness and inequity. They also show that levels of trust between members of the public are lower in countries where income differences are the largest and also argue that this is because of the kind of stratification that takes place in association with inequity. It entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions.

Obesity, which is rapidly increasing throughout the developed world, is a major health crisis. In the past the rich were fat and the poor were thin, but in developed countries these patterns are reversed. Fat is now a class issue. Figures show that levels of obesity tend to be lower in countries where income differences are smaller.

More unequal countries have worse educational attainment. This suggests that there is more to educational equity than overcoming the unequal school readiness starting point of disadvantaged students and a relentless focus on student learning progress.  Differentiated levels of educational attainment are strongly influenced by the kind of communities we create and the sense of possibility and aspiration that exists.  Communities with high levels of trust and social capital and societies with high social mobility are more likely to flourish in more equal economies where governments invest in high quality public services, housing is not highly stratified and schools are not highly segregated by income.

Most policy measures directed to addressing the social determinants of health and educational inequality would have to be rather different if they were to take the thesis of this book into account.

This book provides a convincing critique of any narrow ‘close the educational achievement gap’ agenda. We may be able to marginally reduce gaps in levels of reading at a point in time by a relentless focus, but this book suggests that a belief that education measures alone can bring about greater equality needs to be flipped.  If we want better educational outcomes we also have to work for a more inclusive participatory civil society and greater economic and social equity – through wage fairness, job security, good working conditions, addressing career pathways for people in dead end jobs, retraining support, housing policies that reduce income based residential and educational segregation, food security and so on.

It also affirms the central importance of implementing school funding reforms currently on the table but suggests that this should be a start, and not an end.

Its important that the new funding arrangements will give greater scope for high need schools to provide much needed wrap around services, remedial support, greater subject choice, enrichment and early intervention to address the immediate learning and social emotional needs of their students.  However, if the funding reforms do not do anything to change the Government funding share across the different systems, then public schools, no matter how hard they work and how good they are, will not attract back to them, any of the parents who have opted out.

This means that, just as the US might have a level of violence that is off the scale in international terms, Australia will continue to have a level of educational segregation that is also off the scale.  If Gonski Reforms are agreed to, and I desperately hope they are, we will have made a start on addressing school funding poverty, but the relative levels of school inequality and the high levels of education segregation will remain until we have a government that is willing to stand up to the power of the non Government school lobby, for whom ‘market share’ of students is key.


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