The Spirit Level

Why fairer equals better in our society

By Alan Tristram and Sally Rawnsley

Reports from the Social Development Ministry and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG)show that inequality in NZ is getting steadily worse.

CPAG says: “Not only are children suffering the most, but families on low and middle incomes are going backwards, signalling an increase the depth of poverty.”

We think this is wrong and we intend to campaign for a fairer society, which is actually better for everyone.

A local educationalist, Sally Rawnsley, of Paekakariki, has also taken up the cudgels. She recommends ‘the Spirit Level’ to anyone interested in getting a fair society — and she’s donating two copies to readers who send in the best letters on the subject. (The only proviso is that you hand them on after reading).

‘Start with The Spirit Level’

By Sally Rawnsley

Sally is the Programme Manager for Community Continuing Education at Victoria University. Earlier she was a modern languages teacher and then worked for many years in distance education.

If you’ve ever wondered why an apparently blessed country like New Zealand has such a poor record on so many social indicators such as violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, teen pregnancy and teen suicide, you need to read The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Everything affected by equality

This profoundly important book, first published in 2009, presents evidence to show how almost everything – from life expectancy to mental illness, violence to literacy – is affected not by how wealthy a society is but by how equal it is.

It shows that societies with a bigger gap between rich and poor are bad for everyone in them – including the well-off, and it offers suggestions as to how we can find positive solutions and move towards a fairer, happier future.

The Spirit Level chart — with the worst at top right, and NZ near top place-getters.
The best and fairest countries, led by Japan, are at bottom left.

Well, of course, I can hear you say – we already knew that, it’s obvious. Maybe.

But what is not so obvious is the fact that everyone is better off in a more equal society, not just the poor. Perhaps this is the key to persuading the ‘haves’ to give up just a little bit in order to share with the ‘have nots’ so that we all benefit?

Anyone who grew up in New Zealand before about 1980 will remember how this country was once a kinder, gentler, happier and, above all, fairer place. New Zealanders have always prided themselves on the fact that this country gave everyone a ‘fair go’.

NZ inequality highest ever

But now we read a report written by Bryan Perry based on Statistics Department figures, which says that income inequality in New Zealand has reached its highest level ever.

We also hear that a large percentage of really wealthy New Zealanders (those worth more than $50 million or more) do not pay income tax at the highest rate and that child poverty has doubled in the last 30 years. Is this the kind of country we really want to live in?

New Zealand, as a small country with a centralised administration and a history of valuing fairness and equality, probably has the best chance of any country at reversing the trend.

Wilkinson and Pickett show that there are two routes to reducing inequality: High taxation coupled with a generous welfare system (as in the Scandinavian countries), or a culture of modest salaries even at the top of the hierarchy (as in Japan).

The interesting thing is that it doesn’t matter how a country achieves it –  the beneficial effects of equality on society are the same.

So, read The Spirit Level, talk to others in your community, and next time you vote think carefully about the implications for all of us of letting the poor get poorer while the rich get richer.

(Editor’s note: So get your letters written! We will publish them and then choose the best two to get prize copies of ‘The Spirit Level’)





Pretty much the majority know we are living in a declining social scale, really the emphasis should be in getting the eggs you all seem to elect to read this type of stuff.

” High taxation coupled with a generous welfare system ..”
Haven’t we tried this and it’s failed?
We’ve had tax rates as high as 65% on the rich and that didn’t address inequality.

As to a generous welfare system, that just helps to encourage an expectation of someone else will look after you, whereas we should be encouraging individual initiative, and you don’t do that by high tax on effort and generous welfare for not working.

Perhaps we need to realize there is no “right to an income “- income needs to be earned, or created, by individual or collective effort.

So yes, restrict welfare to genuinely needy, and scale down top of the hierarchy salaries, including our politicians.