Playing chicken: Income inequality and its devastating social impact

By Jonathan Dorsett
March 29, 2010

A few years ago I was challenged by a friend to imagine what our world would look like if instead of money as currency, our communities were based on the trading of chickens.

In this world of chicken trading it would be very obvious if one person’s ‘wealth’ of chickens was dramatically more than that of someone else. If the community found themselves in a time of scarcity with very few chickens, and one person had a backyard full of chickens, the inequality would be visible for all to see, and the moral obligation on the chicken hoarder towards the rest of the community would be obvious.

It may strike you as an absurd picture, but my friend’s point was that money helps us to hide our resources from each other, and without the right attitudes of heart, can be a barrier to developing real community.

Inequalities of income and resources is an age old problem. For some societies this has been seen as the way the world is meant to be; empires were, (and are), built on the control of resources and the directing of the many by the few; hierarchies were established by many early civilisations and were justified for maintaining social order. Mythologies (such as the creation stories of the Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians) were developed to support, legitimise and spread the empire worldview.

However, in amongst those early empires, were a small group of people who, in their sacred scriptures, were given a vision and direction for society which attempted to limit the growth of inequality and therefore create a community of well-being/peace/shalom. The people group where the Hebrews, and the vision for society was called Jubilee.

Jubilee was a mechanism that was intended to restore health and wellbeing to the land and to society. Laid out in the book of Leviticus, (chapter 25), every 50 years there was to be rest for the land from cultivation; cancellation of debts owed; freedom for those in slavery; and redistribution of the land among the people. The principles were there to ensure that hierarchies of power and the exploitation of the many by the few did not develop.

There is little evidence that these values and principles were ever fully played out, and despite the influence of the Judeo-Christian story on Western society over the past few millennia, empires have clearly continued to rise and fall with little regard for resource equality.

Like those of history, modern empires continue to use mythology to support, legitimise and spread their worldview. Consumerism, materialism, and autonomous-individualism are all myths which perpetuate and expound the empire mindsets of the present day. These stories would lead us to believe that consuming more, owning more and the pursuit of our own individual wealth, will bring happiness and meaning to our lives. There is however, compelling new evidence that more stuff and more wealth, doesn’t actually add up to improved wellbeing, and that income and resource equality is better for everyone (including the rich).

‘The Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett has just been released in paperback. In the book these two professors of epidemiology outline how nearly all our social ills, from life-expectancy to mental illness; violence to illiteracy, are not improved by how wealthy a society is, but by how equal it is.

Taking the top 23 wealthiest countries and rating them on the level of inequality in each, the authors then compare the results with indicators for mental health, obesity, teenage pregnancy, trust, social mobility, educational performance, drug use, domestic violence, and more. In each and every case, the more equal a country is in terms of its wealth distribution, the better it performs on the indicators. Furthermore, it is not just better for those at the lower levels of income; those in the richer sectors of society also see improvements in educational, health and social factors.

Wilkinson and Pickett conclude that once a country reaches a certain level of material wealth, increasing the wealth further does not add anything to people’s happiness. How equally the wealth is distributed then becomes the factor that improves wellbeing.

Wellbeing is a concept that is at the heart of an initiative I run called Peace School. In the Hebrew Scriptures the word for wellbeing is Shalom (often translated as ‘peace’ in English translations). Perry Yoder, (author of Shalom: The Bible’s word for Salvation, Justice and Peace), argues that for shalom to be present in a person, family, community or country, there needs to be the threefold combination of personal integrity, material wellbeing, and social justice. When these are in evidence together, there will be a society of wholeness and wellbeing.

These three strands of shalom are interconnected and inter-related. So to be shalom activists we need to be upholding, incarnating and advocating for social justice and equality in our communities; for the material needs of all people to be met; and to be working towards those things with honesty and integrity.

The authors of ‘The Spirit Level’, having outlined their research and conclusions, have taken a step beyond the normal academic approach and set up a campaign group called the Equality Trust, to campaign for a more equal society both through public policy and through changing public attitudes. The Equality trust is not advocating particular political remedies, (as their evidence suggests the more equal countries among their studied group have moved towards great equality in a number of different ways), but is looking to stimulate political will to create a more equitable and sustainable society. Please do visit the website to learn more and take action to work towards a society with a jubilee mentality, and a shalom orientated vision.

Perhaps if we can change our society’s common story of individual pursuit of greater wealth to one where obscene wealth is a social taboo; where we have checks and balances in place to limit the growth of inequality and where the common goal is that of equality, we will see wholeness again in ourselves, our families, our communities and our nation.

Find out more about Peace School and their 'taster day' in May here:


(c) Jonathan Dorsett co-ordinates linked Peace School, which is linked to the grassroots theological training initiative Workshop - for which he is a tutor. Jonathan is a keen sculptor, allotment worker, brewer, and also runs a Fairtrade comedy club.

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