How greater equality could radically improve life in London

By Jonathan Bartley
March 26, 2010

Rates of obesity, mental illness and teenage pregnancy in London could plummet if the gap between rich and poor was as small as that in some other countries, new research from The Equality Trust is proposing.

It's fascinating stuff. As their new report points out the most thoroughly researched link is between inequality and health. It is not simply that wealthier people tend to live longer than the poor - it is that even in a prosperous society, life expectancy decreases for every step down the income scale.

But they also point to the diminishing returns of economic growth for all. More unequal societies tend to be harmful, not just for those at the bottom of the income scale. Evidence points to the negative effects of income inequality percolating up through society, affecting virtually everybody in one way or another. Growth no longer appears to bring increases in life expectancy or happiness.

If the UK enjoyed levels of equality closer to countries like Sweden or Japan, the authors propose that in London, obesity could decline by up to 50 per cent, mental illness could be reduced to less than one-third of its present levels, and the teenage birth rate could be cut by almost three quarters.

The top 20 per cent in the UK have an income seven times the income of the bottom 20 per cent, compared with four times in Sweden and Japan.

Swedish levels of equality, if replicated in the capital, would also result in stronger communities the authors suggest, as twice as many people would trust each other. Many other social problems – from violence to poor exam performance – would also improve.

The report was written by Professors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, co-founders of the Equality Trust and co-authors of the award-winning book The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone.

It suggests that although the biggest improvements would be seen in the poorest boroughs, life in the richest ones would also get better.

Prof Kate Pickett: “We worked out how much life could improve for Londoners if the incomes of rich and poor were closer together in the UK. Not only is life better for poorer people, even the rich benefit, for example from higher life expectancy, better mental health, and lower crime rates.”

The report, commissioned by the London Sustainable Development Commission, also shows the importance of equality to tackling climate change. More equal countries produce less CO2, recycle more, and have business leaders more committed to reducing emissions.

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