Income inequality has hit the headlines again with the publication of Thomas Piketty’s seminal Capital in the 21st Century, which gives a bleak forecast of extreme wealth and income concentration, discontent and the undermining of democracy itself.
The economic outcomes of rising inequality are indeed shocking. Even the IMF, who once saw it as the price to be paid for a functioning global economy, have woken up to what’s been happening with income distribution. Their new research shows inequality is destabilising and damages growth.
However, it’s not just the economy that suffers when income and wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. It’s not just a question of market efficiency, but of morality. As we get ever richer in developed countries, how wide do we let the gap grow if the outcome is sick, miserable people?
Is inequality, as Pope Francis recently said, “the root of all social evil”?
The meticulous research in the book The Spirit Level paints a convincing case that he may be right. Wilkinson & Pickett examine 25 years of data to show how nearly all social ills – stress, poor educational performance, child wellbeing, violence, the decline of community – are more common in those societies with a big gap between rich and poor. Of course correlation doesn’t prove causation, but there’s good reason to believe the income gap is at root. Bigger income differences reduce social cohesion, and make us more inclined to see people as “other”.
Our societies become tougher, more divided places in which to live.
It’s a powerful message, and many of us see the signs of it around us: in the demonisation of the poor, rising levels of stress and consumer culture. This is why two years ago, I launched a crowdfunding campaign to get a documentary off the ground that would help to convey powerfully how excessive income differences impact on our wellbeing, our lives and the futures of our children. The response was phenomenal, it was clear this was an issue people cared about.
Since then, I’ve been working closely with communities across the world across the income scale. I’ve met relatively rich people who were made to feel poor for not having the ‘right’ car, and families afraid to leave their homes after dark due to the violence on their streets, both perceived and real. From low to high income, what has struck me most was not how different people’s lives were, but how similar: worries over how we are judged, respect at work and in our communities, the pressure of making ends meet and giving the best to our children.
I’m often asked how we can make any change in an issue that seems so vast and entrenched. Well, we did not always live in a world with such vast inequities in income, and if a shift so big can occur in one direction, it is always possible to shift again. The philosopher Anthony Appiah in The Honor Code eloquently speaks of the shifts in moral norms in such diverse issues as slavery, footbinding and dueling.
By changing our attitudes, we can change the world.
I’ve long been passionate about the role that film can play in changing attitudes. From Cathy Come Home to An Inconvenient Truth, it can create emotional connections and reach people far beyond words on a page. We want The Spirit Level to be a film that achieves tangible change in policies and attitudes.
We have now completed almost all of our filming, and our aim is to have the film finished and released by early next year. This week we’re launching the final phase of our crowdfunding campaign, along with a new 2 minute trailer, showing just some of the fantastic individuals and families we have filmed:
We are asking supporters to pre-buy the download of the film so that we can reach our target and release the film as quickly as possible. It is also possible to donate more of course, and we have signed books, premiere tickets and even credits in the film on offer. However, regardless of how much cash you have, we want you to participate and spread the word about our message by sharing our trailer and website on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. In the words of Spirit Level author Richard Wilkinson “A better life is possible for us all”.
Katharine Round is director and producer of the Spirit Level documentary.
Give, Act and Pray with Church Action on Poverty to Close the Gap between rich and poor – click here to find out more.