The Scandal of Our Times, Status Syndrome and the Five Faces of Social Inequality Dorling (2013: 10) has described the British ‘scandal of our times’ as the nation becoming so unequal that there is now a 14.4 year difference in life expectancy between people born in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the City of Glasgow. In order to find a larger relative gap in life expectancy between two places in the UK it is necessary to go back to the recession of the 1880s. This is despite the significant advances that have been made in medical science and living standards in Britain since the Victorian era. This level of inequality is clearly detrimental to those who find themselves at the lower end of the social hierarchy. However, recent research demonstrates that such stark inequalities have a detrimental health effect on those higher up the social hierarchy too. Wilkinson and Pickett caused quite a stir in 2010 when they released their book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. We have long known that there is a significant link between wealth and health: generally, the wealthier a country or group of people are the better their health is likely to be (e.g., the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is a much more affluent area than the City of Glasgow). However, what Wilkinson and Pickett so convincingly demonstrate in their book is that it is not just the level of wealth that is important but also the level of inequality. They demonstrate that countries with populations which are more equal generally have better health outcomes when compared to countries with similar levels of wealth but more severe inequalities. In some cases poorer but more equal countries have higher levels of health than their wealthier counterparts. Therefore, Wilkinson and Pickett argue that if a country becomes more equal it is highly likely that the health of its population will improve. This is a revelatory finding and one that we cannot yet fully explain. Wilkinson and Pickett’s theory is that the psychosocial experience of inequality has a detrimental health effect. What they mean by this is that knowing how much worse off you are than others in the same society has a negative effect on your health. So, not being able to afford to heat your home will have a negative health effect but on top of this knowing that other people can afford to live in homes where not only the rooms but also the swimming pool is heated has an additional negative effect on your health. Another important figure in this debate, Sir Michael Marmot, has termed this negative health effect the ‘status syndrome’. What is so significant about this syndrome is that it negatively affects the health of almost all of us which means that the health of almost everyone in society would improve if we all became more equal. Why, then, doesn’t reducing inequality seem to be a priority for the government? Of course, there are very many powerful influences in government and big business that have vested interests: that is, rich people at the top seldom want to become less rich. We also live in a society where the dominant influence is neoliberalism. This influence creates a sort of common sense logic about the fairness and necessity of inequality. An essential message of neoliberalism is that people are rewarded for their talent, shrewdness and effort thus everyone has the opportunity to be rich. Therefore, the people at the top are presented as deserving to be there. Obviously there is less recognition given to the fact that people are born into inequality and therefore not everybody has the same chance in life. In his insightful book Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists Danny Dorling argues that there are now five faces of social inequality which stop us becoming a more equal society and thus maintain the status quo. They are: 1) Elitism is efficient. 2) Exclusion is necessary. 3) Prejudice is natural. 4) Greed is good. 5) Despair is inevitable. If we are to become a more equal – and therefore healthier – nation then we need to stare down these faces and dispel their myth.
DEADLINE: 29/1/16
CONTACT OLI: o.s.williams@bath.ac.uk