Monday, October 17, 2011

Let's end up with poverty (for our own sake!)

Engraving: Clipart ETC

There are many reasons to end up with poverty. The top one is that poverty is the most unfair situation of our times and fighting against this injustice is (or should be) one of our main priorities. But it is obvious that some people are not interested at all to eradicate poverty, either because they consider that we all have the same chances in life so poor people are just those who do not make the best of these changes (we know this is nonsense, but it is widespread too, way more than expected) or because it is better to go on this way and make the best of it, even if it is not fair.
However, there is a conclusive argument to fight against poverty: eradicating poverty is the best way to increase the welfare and life quality of our society, even for the well-off. In other words: even those who benefit from poverty will benefit even more from the eradication of poverty. In this endeavour, everybody does well out of it.
This is the storyline of the book The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone, by the economist Richard Wilkinson and the anthropologist Kate Pickett. The argument of this fascinating book is the following:
There are some social and health problems affecting mainly poor people, so these problems are likely to be found in Third World countries rather than in rich countries: ill-health, violence, mental disorders, alcohol or drug addiction, low life expectancy, high mortality rates, obesity, teenage pregnancy, poor school performance, high homicide rate, high prison population and low social mobility. These problems get more serious in poor countries –just compare El Salvador with France, or Nigeria with Switzerland, to have a clear picture.
So far, nothing new. But these researchers reveal an outstanding fact: in rich countries, these problems are not reduced when wealth increases. The richest countries do not have less social problems, but the most equal countries do. Let’s take a look at this graph to better understand this concept, positioning the richest countries in the world (some European countries plus Canada, US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand):

The vertical line shows the rate of the above-mentioned social and health problems, with data taken from WHO, UN, OECD, UNICEF and state agencies. At the top of this line you can see the countries with more problems. The horizontal line shows income inequality: countries with the highest income inequality rates are positioned on the right. As you can see, countries with high income inequality (that is, rich people are very rich and poor people are very poor) also have more problems. And these problems do not only affect poor people: if we do not take poor people’s problems into account, the graph remains the same. In other words: the well-off Americans have more problems than rich people in Finland.
Summing up: in those countries with high income inequalities, even the well-off have a shorter life expectancy, ill-health, more violence, more addiction and worse quality of life. The country with the highest rate of social and health problems (among those countries tested) is also the country with the most unequal income rates, despite being one of the richest countries in the world: United States. At the other end of the line we find Japan and Nordic countries, which are the countries with fewer problems and less inequality. Therefore, by reducing income inequality, we will reduce social problems.
And bear in mind that this book does not present a Utopia. It does not compare current societies with an ideal society, but with already existing societies. If distributing wealth fairly does improve the welfare in rich countries, we can apply this premise to the whole world: for instance, fighting against poverty in Bolivia will not only benefit Bolivian people but also the rest of the countries in the world.


  1. The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone, by Richard WILKINSON and Kate PICKETT:,,9780141921150,00.html


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