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This paper begins with the comparison between the life expectancy of a child born in a rich country, like the US, where average income is high, and a child born in a relatively poorer country, such as Greece or Japan. While it may be assumed that the life expectancy of child A will be higher than that of child B, this is often not the case. On the contrary, in a rather ironic twist, the opposite is more likely. For instance, “the life expectancy of the child born in the US is 1.2 years lower than that of the child born in Greece” (Wilkinson & Picket 2011, p. 5). Also, “there’s 40 per cent more chance that the child born in the US will die before its first birthday than the child born in Greece, and twice as more than the child born in Japan” (Wilkinson & Picket 2011, p 5).
From these facts, it can be inferred that a country’s average income or spending on high-tech medical care may not matter in deciding the health outcome, as reflected in the life expectancy index. Wilkinson and Picket, albeit without conclusive certainty, attribute this phenomenon to how well the country wealth is distributed amongst the people. Studies have shown that “egalitarian societies are healthier” (Wilkinson & Picket 2011, p. 6) as compared to those that are unequal. Hence the disparity in life expectancy rates of children in the US and Greece.
The purpose of this paper is to look at the factors that Wilkinson and Picket think to account for this situation.
Wilkinson and Picket explain this situation from the perspective of both social and economic inequalities in a country.
Inequality is linked with the psychosocial health of a people. It leads to lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality rates, poor self-reported health, depression, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, and low birth rate. Other factors include obesity, teenage births, levels of trust between the people, children’s performance in education, mental illness, alcohol (and other drugs) addiction, homicides, social mobility, and rates of imprisonment. Specific findings showed that in unequal societies, mental illness rates are three times more likely to occur than in the societies that are relatively equal; a person is ten times likely to be imprisoned than in equal societies; clinical obesity is three times more likely in unequal societies than in equal societies (Wilkinson & Picket 2011, p. 6).
“It is less likely that social and health problems occur in countries that are more equal in wealth distribution” (Wilkinson & Picket 2011, p. 6).
Wilkinson and Picket argue that since people use differences in living standards to mark differences in status, inequality is a major social divider. They concur that people tend to select friends amongst those who fall within the same income brackets as them. Where one falls in the society determines how he/she perceives those around and marks them as in-group or out-group, and, in the end, how one identifies or empathizes with certain people.
This is a bad thing since the sense of community and the resultant social cohesion and solidarity is an important factor in a person’s health. The involvement in the community and beneficial friendship are key to one’s psychosocial health.
Wilkinson and Picket dispute the assumption that inequality does only affect those who fall in the lower social ranks. On the contrary, they argue, inequality affects a vast majority of people in a country.
Inequality also affects literacy in a country. With data from International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), Wilkinson and Picket demonstrate how, in spite of how well one’s parents are educated and their high social status, the country, especially in how equitable it is in its distribution of wealth, still plays the key role in determining one’s success in education. But then again, the situation is much worse for those whose parents are less educated, and hence, from the lower social scale.
Having looked at how a country’s social inequality contributes to the health and social conditions of the people, Wilkinson and Picket believe that this situation can be reversed: “the deterioration in a people’s social health/well-being and their social relations as dictated by the inequities in the society are, far from the assumption that they are inevitable, unstoppable and reversible” (Wilkinson & Picket 2011, p 9). Having said that, they propose the ways in which this can be achieved.
This solution, propose Wilkinson and Picket, relies on reasserting the primary role of politics, which is the key to changing the economic circumstances and, as a result, improving a people’s emotional and social well-being. They regret the fact that this key role of politics has been lost in time, during which individualism has come to be viewed as the factor upon which the psychosocial well-being depends. Now that it is known how income distribution affects the psychosocial well-being of a people, politicians can use these statistics to formulate relevant policies. Achieving the equality can be done through different routes and means besides redistributive benefits and taxes, as is the case in most equal countries. Besides, the ultimate goal is equality, no matter how it is arrived at.
This paper is distinctly based on the ‘Social Capital Theory’ (SCT). Broadly, SCT encompasses the “networks and norms that facilitate collective actions for the benefit of all” (Woolcock 1998, p. 155). This concept of SCT can be interpreted differently. For instance, White (2002 argues that social relations between the people in a community can help an individual gain certain benefits, both economic and non-economic. On another hand, as argued by Coleman (1988, p. 98), social concept only resides in the relations between the people and not the individual.
Wilkinson and Picket seem to agree with both. For all people in a country to attain psychosocial health, they argue, they must all share the resources in the country [relatively] equally. In other words, there shouldn’t be unfair distribution of wealth, which may result in further class divisions. Although they acknowledge that individual effort to maintain beneficial relations with others in the community can help one’s psychosocial well-being [this is another dimension of SCT], they argue that wide social inequities make social classes more distinct and divided. These explicit distinctions make one conscious of his class and, as such, hinder the way that he relates with others. In other words, inequities hinder social relations, as well as social mobility. To Wilkinson and Picket, therefore, individual effort is inferior to the prevailing social conditions. They extend the same argument when they claim, as above, that the education level and social class of one’s parents is secondary to the conditions in the country when it comes to helping him [the child] succeed.
As barely mentioned above, Wilkinson and Picket implicitly acknowledge other dimensions of SCT. But they still do not deviate from their primary perspective, i.e., the role of social relations in the psychosocial well-being of a people, and the role of policy-makers, on behalf of the community, in ensuring healthy social relations.
Evidence that the writers use here, as they notably mention, is collected from very reputable sources, such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, the Organizations for Economic Co-operation and Development, et cetera. The data reflected the relations between the social relations of a people and their psychosocial health in most developed countries. Also, the data from 50 states in the US are relatively satisfactory. All these data, taking into account the scope of this research, can be said to be relatively satisfactory in making near-accurate assumptions and conclusions.