Trevor Hancock: High levels of inequality incompatible with a well-being society


High levels of inequality are incompatible with a well-being society, which must have equitable health.

Along with an ecologically unsustainable economic system and way of life, the world faces a second big challenge: a socially unsustainable level of inequality within and between nations and communities.

High levels of inequality are incompatible with a well-being society, which the World Health Organization’s Geneva Charter for Well-Being defines as a society with equitable health.

Health inequalities are strongly influenced by the level of inequality in society, as noted by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their 2009 book The spirit level. They clearly showed that in high-income countries, for a range of health and social outcomes, it is not the level of GDP that affects their performance, but the degree of inequality within the country; the more unequal they are, the worse they are.

Inequality is corrosive. As the French philosopher Raymond Aron said: “When inequality becomes too great, the idea of ​​community becomes impossible.”

This is also true on a global scale: “Ties between countries do not work when the ties within them are severed,” noted the recent UN report. Our common program.

Which brings me to World inequality report 2022, released in December. The report is published by the France-based World Inequality Lab, whose main funders include the European Research Council, the Paris School of Economics, the Ford Foundation and a number of universities and research centres.

The report focuses on several aspects of inequality, including income and wealth inequality as well as gender inequality. Unusually, it also focuses on inequality in carbon emissions, which, of course, directly links inequality to an unsustainable lifestyle, especially when much of the world seems to want to emulate the “lifestyle of the rich and famous”.

Globally, the richest 10% of the population receives 52% of global income and owns 76% of total wealth. Meanwhile, the poorest half of the population earns 8.5% of global income, while owning just 2% of global wealth.

Further, the report notes, “Income and wealth inequality have increased almost everywhere since the 1980s, following a series of deregulation and liberalization programs” – in other words, neoliberalism.

The authors also point out that “wealth is a major source of future economic gains,” so this growing concentration of wealth “portends further increases in inequality.”

Indeed, if we look at the top 1% globally, we see an extreme concentration of wealth and economic power: “Between 1995 and 2021, the top 1% captured 38% of global increase in wealth, while the bottom 50 percent captured a frightening [that is to say, frighteningly low] 2 percent.

This inequality is also reflected in the share of carbon emissions: “the top 10% emitters are responsible for nearly 50% of all emissions, while the bottom 50% produce 12% of the total. »

More dramatically, not only do the richest 10% in North America emit more than seven times the emissions of the bottom half, per person, but they also emit more than twice the amount of the richest 10% in Europe.

The situation in Canada is only slightly better. The top 10% took 40% of the income and held 57% of the wealth, while the bottom 50% received only 15% of all income and did not quite own 6% of the total wealth. At the very top, the top 1% received nearly 15% of all income and owned a quarter of all wealth.

Canada’s carbon emissions are telling: while the bottom half in 2019 emitted 10 tonnes per year, the top 10% emitted 60 tonnes and the top 1% an astonishing 190 tonnes, 10 times the national average. Worse still, while the bottom 90% reduced their emissions by about four tonnes per person, the top 10% actually increased their emissions by the same amount!

But perhaps the most important statement of the report is this: “Inequality is not a fatality, it is a political choice”.

So it shouldn’t be that way. Next week, I will explore some of the policy responses needed to quell this obscene rise in inequality and the resulting extreme imbalance of power and influence.

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior researcher in the School of Public Health and Social Policy at the University of Victoria.


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