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Why inequality is bad for you -- and everyone else
By Richard Wilkinson, Special to CNN updated 7:03 AM EST, Sun November 6, 2011
Richard Wilkinson on economic inequality
Richard Wilkinson: Evidence confirms that inequality causes social problems
Social ills in U.S., U.K. can be up to 10 times greater than in more equal countries
When there's more inequality, people become desperate for higher social status, he says
Wilkinson: Children trained either for world of constant struggle or for cooperation
Editor's note: Richard Wilkinson is emeritus professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School. He is co-author of a book, "The Spirit Level" with Kate Pickett and is a cofounder of The Equality Trust, a campaign seeking to reduce income inequality in the U.K. Wilkinson spoke at the TED Global conference in July in Edinburgh, U.K. TED is an organization dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.
(CNN) -- People have always known that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive. What is surprising, now that we have the data to compare societies, is how clear the effects of inequality are.
A wide range of social problems are worse in societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor. These include physical and mental illness, violence, low math and literacy scores among young people, lower levels of trust and weaker community life, poorer child well-being, more drug abuse, lower social mobility and higher rates of imprisonment and teenage births.
The differences in performance of more and less equal societies is often enormous: Most of these problems are between twice and ten times as common in countries like the United States, Britain and
Portugal, which have large income differences compared to countries with smaller income differences like the Nordic countries or Japan.
For example, taking high, medium and low inequality countries, the homicide rate in the United States in 2009 was 50 per million
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Why inequality is bad for you -- and everyone else - CNN.com population compared with 18 in Canada and 5 in Japan.
The police, prisons and public services needed to defend ourselves against these problems are expensive and often not very effective.
But the underlying causal processes are fairly clear. The problems that get worse when there is more inequality are all problems that become more common lower down the social ladder within each society. TED.com: What explains trust and morality
Greater income inequality seems to amplify and intensify the effects of social status differentiation -- bigger material differences creating bigger social distances. So the most common trigger to violence seems to be people feeling disrespected and looked down on.
Although social class imprints its effects on us from earliest childhood onward, greater inequality makes these effects more marked.
But inequality does not harm the poor alone. The effects are so large because almost everyone is affected. The benefits of greater inequality are biggest at the bottom of society, but a number of studies suggest that a large majority -- perhaps 90% or 95% -- of the population benefits from greater equality.
We cannot say what happens to the superrich because they are a