DO YOU trust your neighbours? Do you lock your doors and windows up tight? Do you think you’re likely to be robbed on the street? If someone asked you whether you agreed with the statement ‘most people can be trusted’, how would you answer?
Don’t start. I know you’re going to go on about modern life and how kids can’t play in the road any more.
It’s true - but not everywhere. In some countries, people answer those questions “I feel safe. I trust my neighbours. I’m unlikely to be robbed.” And they’re right, and not just about crime. They also have better health, higher education and longer lives.
Those countries may surprise you: Sweden, Norway, Finland, Japan. All wealthy, but that’s not the reason they’re safe, according to two academics whose theory may change our attitude to wealth.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett say the difference is how much more money a country’s rich have than that country’s poor. The countries that do badly are often surprising: the US, Portugal, Singapore.
You wouldn’t imagine that a study collating years of figures from the WHO, the UN, the OECD and other alphabetical luminaries would be entertaining, but Wilkinson and Pickett’s book Spirit Level has sold and sold.
Wilkinson, a public health expert for almost 40 years, and University of York academic Pickett collated information from some 200 sources.
Inequality - they say - affects everything from the number of people in prison to how long people live, to obesity, mental illness, teen births, drug use and violence. Countries where the richest are only a bit richer than the poorest do well. Countries where the rich have 300 times more than the poor are in big trouble.
Ireland is fairly near the middle of the countries studied in total income - but just the wrong side of the middle in income distribution, Wilkinson told me. “Ireland has substantially lower life expectancy than we’d expect,” he says. “So your health is less good than we’d expect it to be.
“Infant deaths are substantially higher - that might account for the low life expectancy. Only USA, Portugal and New Zealand have infant mortality as high or higher.”
Mind you, these figures are old - they’re from the early to mid 2000s. And the professors don’t have last year’s CSO figures - our infant mortality rate halved between 2000 and 2009. But as the gap between rich and poor widens in Ireland, our health care is likely to decline, our crime rise, and our educational standards fall - if the two academics’ figures hold true.
The weirdest thing Wilkinson and Pickett found was that bad outcomes in unequal nations hit the rich as well as the poor. Rich guys in countries with huge gaps between rich and poor live less long than rich guys in countries where everyone’s wealth is relatively level.
“Some colleagues at Harvard called inequality a ‘general social pollutant’, because it seemed to lead to worse health amongst the whole population, not just the poor,” said Wilkinson.
If he’s right, someone had better call the water board, because as Ireland’s rich get richer and our poor get poorer, the social sewers are about to overflow.
Evening Herald, May 2010