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Vancouver: Book Connects Economic Equality with Social Well-Being and Health
The Vancouver Courier

December 28, 2010
View the Original Article

Who knew? The resounding old revolutionary motto, "Liberte, Egalite Fraternite" is good health policy as well as good rhetoric, some social scientists are now arguing. Economic equality, it turns out, is good for everyone, even those at the top of the social ladder. A growing body of research now suggests that once an economy reaches a modest level of development, the more equality it can boast in income distribution the better it does on a wide range of indicators of social well-being and dysfunction. And the evidence shows the benefits of income equality are felt up and down the class ladder, with health and welfare gains for even the richest.

British social scientists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's new book, The Spirit Level looks at a wide ranging array of research studies into the relationship between income inequality and social well-being. Developed nations and American states with higher levels of income inequality score higher for negative outcomes like obesity, teen parenthood, violence, drug use, anxiety and depression. In more equal jurisdictions, on the other hand, people at all levels of income show evidence of better mental and physical health.

On almost all these measures, Canada shows up in the middle of the pack, with greater economic equality than the U.S. and the U.K., and consequently less social pathology. On the other hand, our economy is far less equal than that of equity champions like Japan, Sweden and Finland, and, predictably enough, generates significantly higher levels of dysfunction than they do.

In Japan, the percentage of citizens who report having been mentally ill in the year before being interviewed is lower than nine per cent. In the U.S. where income distribution is more unequal than in any other developed democracy, over 25 per cent of those interviewed report some experience of mental illness in the year before their interviews. Being number one in inequality hasn't meant good outcomes for Americans.

Similarly, Japan and the Nordic countries have much lower levels of infant mortality than the U.S., the U.K. and other high inequality countries.

The authors of The Spirit Level do an admirable job of presenting their often baffling statistical data lucidly. Even I, one of the most innumerate of readers, could keep my eyes from glazing over as I made my way through this vitally important book. I can only hope that folks at city hall were reading The Spirit Level this fall, because it holds within its well written pages a clue to at least one important policy reform the city could enact to improve the lives of all its citizens.

Vancouver should follow the lead of the city of New Westminster, which recently became the first city in Canada to adopt a Living Wage policy. Under this policy, both direct and contract city employees must be paid at or above an hourly family living wage, as calculated by the Living Wage for Families Campaign and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. In making this commitment, New West joins over 140 American and scores of British municipalities that have made the living wage commitment.

The current calculation by Living Wage campaigners sets the minimum Living Wage hourly rate at $18.17 in Metro Vancouver. Currently, say organizers, nearly 100,000 greater Vancouver families live on wages below this modest level. Curious readers can find more about this campaign at livingwageforfamilies.ca.

In Vancouver, inequality is getting worse. In 2007, the richest 10 percent of Vancouver families with children had incomes 11 times larger than the poorest 10 per cent. In 2008, the income ratio was up to a staggering 14 to one, and in the decade between 1989 and 2008, the poorest 30 per cent of Metro Vancouver families actually saw their incomes decline!

Our city, then, is marred and fragmented by economic inequality, and it sits in a province that is once again, for the seventh shameful year running, the worst performer in Canada on child poverty. A Vancouver decision to commit to being a living wage employer would not, of course, solve all the problems associated with inequality, but it would serve as a powerful signal the city and its citizens take the issue seriously, and it would serve as a good example to other B.C. cities. Let's get to it.